- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 30, 2009

UPDATED:

President Obama hoisted beers in the Rose Garden Thursday evening with the black professor and white police officer at the heart of a racially charged incident that has roiled the nation and damaged the president’s standing at a critical moment in his first year in office.

Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Sgt. James Crowley wore dark suits and sipped from tall, frosty glass mugs as they sat next to one another and across from Mr. Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., who was a surprise guest at the powwow.

Afterward, Mr. Crowley said the conversation was “cordial and productive” and “frank,” but said no apologies were made either by himself or Mr. Gates.

“I think what you had today is two gentlemen agree to disagree on a particular issue. I don’t think that we spent too much time dwelling on the past. We spent a lot of time discussing the future,” Mr. Crowley said, speaking to reporters at the headquarters of the AFL-CIO, a few blocks from the White House.

He said that he and Mr. Gates had agreed to meet together in a few weeks in an ongoing effort to “learn from each other.”

Mr. Gates, in a statement posted at theroot.com, where he is editor in chief, said, “I thank God that live in a country in which police officers put their lives at risk to protect us every day, and, more than ever, Ive come to understand and appreciate their daily sacrifices on our behalf.”

“The national conversation over the past week about my arrest has been rowdy, not to say tumultuous and unruly. But we’ve learned that we can have our differences without demonizing one another,” he said.

The president — who last week said Mr. Crowley “acted stupidly” when he took Mr. Gates from his house in hand cuffs following a 911 call from a passer-by who thought Mr. Gates might be a burglar — afterward said the meeting was “a friendly, thoughtful conversation.

“I have always believed that what brings us together is stronger than what pulls us apart. I am confident that has happened here tonight, and I am hopeful that all of us are able to draw this positive lesson from this episode,” Mr. Obama said.

But despite the president’s attempt to play peacemaker, a plurality of the public disapproves of the way Mr. Obama has handled the incident, according to a new poll Thursday that also suggested that the flap has contributed to Mr. Obama’s slumping overall approval rating.

The new poll found that 41 percent disapproved of the president’s statements about the Gates incident, with 29 percent approving and 30 percent having no opinion, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

Mr. Obama’s overall job approval in the Pew poll slipped from 61 percent to 54 percent from June to July. The results of the survey of 480 people conducted Monday came as a number of other polls released this week showed declining approval for the president’s health care reform proposal.

“Politically, [the Gates incident] has hurt President Obama in the public mind in terms of his character,” said Juan Williams, a well-known black journalist and commentator.

“I think that people feel that [Mr. Obama] has always been a racial healer and were surprised to see him taking sides in a racially charged dispute without all the facts,” Mr. Williams said.

“Hopefully, he can repair some of the damage in his meeting with Gates and Crowley, but that remains to be seen.”

Mr. Obama’s comments on the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. appear to have played some role in his ratings decline, according to Pew’s analysis of its findings.

But White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said, “I neither believe the premise, nor am I worried about it.”

However, the Pew survey found that 79 percent of those polled were aware of Mr. Obama’s “acted stupidly” comment.

Before the meeting, president said he was “fascinated with the fascination” over the so-called “Beer Summit” and complained that the arrest incident and his comments on it have been overhyped.

“It’s a clever term but this is not a summit, guys,” Mr. Obama said. “It is an attempt to have some personal interaction when an issue has become so hyped and symbolic that you lose sight of the fact that these are people involved, including myself, all of whom are imperfect.”

During the meeting, Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden, both with their suit jackets off, sat next to one another across from Mr. Gates and Mr. Crowley, who both kept their jackets on.

The men took sips of their beer and the president and vice president both grabbed from a bowl of peanuts on the two-legged table in the middle as Mr. Crowley and Mr. Gates talked alternately, with both men gesturing with their hands. The president at one point interjected something and laughed.

The president had a Bud Light, Mr. Biden had a Buckler non-alcoholic beer, Mr. Crowley drank Blue Moon and Mr. Gates a Sam Adams Light.

Both men and their families received tours of the White House East Wing before the meeting. Mr. Crowley said Mr. Gates approached him and his family when they saw each other during the tour and introduced his family, and the two families continued their guided tour together.

Mr. Obama called the willingness of the two men to talk beforehand a testament to them.

Perhaps never has such a casual event as having a beer been loaded down with so much baggage. The implications of the beer summit had been so discussed and analyzed that the gathering had become a Rorschach test for the media, the political class and the broader American culture.

“I don’t doubt that there are more than just one [lesson],” Mr. Gibbs said.

The president himself said he wanted it to be “a teachable moment,” though he and Mr. Gibbs were less clear about what they thought the lesson was, beyond engaging in dialogue.

Mr. Gates said in advance he hoped the occasion would lead to less racial profiling by law enforcement agencies, prompting scholars at the RAND Corp. to say their studies show that such profiling no longer is the rule but the exception.

Others said that the president’s overall agenda had been damaged by the distraction.

“It pushed health care off the page at a critical moment, and it tainted the perception of [Mr. Obama] as a trustworthy leader at a critical moment in the health care debate,” Mr. Williams said. “He needs to build support. He needs to counter the naysayers. He wants the grass roots to pressure the opponents to do something to work with him, so he needs the public to focus on this.”

Members of the public interviewed by The Washington Times had plenty to say on the subject, though none of them wanted to give their full names.

“[Mr. Gates] is one of those characters that believes everything is racist, that blacks have never gotten a fair shake, and he’s got a chip on his shoulder,” said Gene, a 68-year-old black man walking through Farragut Square on Thursday afternoon.

Gene, a retired business owner, said that the much publicized beer summit was “a waste of time” and that “Mr. Crowley should not have come.” Generally, people’s interpretation of events reflected their political and cultural points of view.

“I know it was just a racist thing, because he was an African-American,” said Regina, a 50-year-old black woman taking a cigarette break, said of Mr. Gates‘ arrest. Matt, a 30-year-old white man sitting on a park bench near the White House, said the arrest was “just a situation that escalated.”

“Had they both been of the same race, the same outcome might have happened,” he said. “People who are apt to draw lessons from anything they see will use this. But with more information coming out, I think it’s best to reserve judgment.”

Whether the incident would prove a damaging distraction for Mr. Obama on other issues also depended on the viewpoint of the speaker.

“The big problem with it is it has ruined health care,” said Francesca, a 50-year-old white woman, who is a supporter of the reform effort.

But Gene, the 68-year-old black man and self-described conservative who opposes Mr. Obama’s reforms, said that the president would be “glad it takes people’s minds off health care” because of the recent setbacks to proposals in Congress and negative polling results.

Whatever the lesson gleaned from the summit, Mr. Gibbs denied that the president was thinking of himself as the teacher in this “teachable moment.”

“All of us are participants in a moment that we hope can teach all in this country that dialogue and communication will always improve a situation,” Mr. Gibbs said. “I don’t think the president looks at himself as, and I don’t think today the president believes that one will be the teacher and others will be the students.”

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