- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The White House is trying to turn a lemon into lemonade using beer, or at least create a good photo-op.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs promised a “poignant moment” and good pictures when President Obama sits down for a beer Thursday with the white Massachusetts police officer and black Harvard professor at the heart of a racially-charged incident that has sparked a nationwide debate.

But Mr. Gibbs cautioned reporters from expecting major breakthroughs either on the specific dispute or on the issue of race writ large when Mr. Obama convenes a bull session over brews at the White House with Sgt. James Crowley and professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., who the officer arrested at the professor’s home.

“There’s no formal agenda other than cold beer,” said Mr. Gibbs. “I think the president wants to continue to take the temperature down a bit, look for the constructive parts that can come out of it,” he said.

The president is aiming to show that his “unfortunate” choice of words - saying last week that police in Massachusetts had “acted stupidly” - on a highly charged issue involving race, class and major societal institutions can be transformed into a positive, or a “teachable moment.” He pursued the same tact responding to controversy over his former pastor’s sermons during the presidential campaign by giving a major speech on race relations in America.

Mr. Obama’s off-the-cuff remark at his press conference last week sparked outrage from police angered that the president, who said he didn’t know all the facts, sided with Mr. Gates, who he considers a friend. The officer arrested Mr. Gates outside his Cambridge, Mass., house after a verbal dispute. The officer had been responding to possible break-in at the professor’s house. Mr. Gates had forced his way in through a stuck door after returning from a trip.

Mr. Obama complained Friday that the flap had undermined talk on health care reform, saying “nobody has been paying much attention to health care.”

But Democratic aides and strategists were not ready to declare the incident a distraction.

“It gets chatter on cable but don’t think it’s impacting any of the policy debates. Sure there are challenges on health care that need to be worked through, but I don’t think this will have any impact,” said Eddie Vale of the AFL-CIO.

One thing that was not clear Tuesday was who came up with the idea for the meeting over cold brews. It was first discussed when Mr. Obama called Sgt. Crowley on his cell phone Friday to apologize.

Mr. Gibbs said Friday that “it was Sergeant Crowley’s suggestion about the beer and I think the president thought it was a good idea.”

But Tuesday, Mr. Gibbs said that the president had come up with the idea.

“I think the president actually offered it up on the call. Crowley then pretty quickly said he’d be in and he likes Blue Moon. So this was something the president suggested Friday afternoon in his call,” Mr. Gibbs said.

Regardless, the three men - the president born of a black Kenyan father and white Kansan mother, the white working class cop, and the black Ivy League professor - will sit at a picnic table outside the Oval Office on Thursday evening about 6 p.m.

Mr. Obama will likely sip a Budweiser, Sgt. Crowley a Blue Moon, and Mr. Gates either a Red Stripe or Beck’s, the White House said.

• Jon Ward can be reached at jward@washingtontimes.com.

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