- The Washington Times - Friday, July 31, 2009

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

Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cambridge, Mass., police Sgt. James Crowley wore dark suits and sipped from tall, frosty glass mugs as they sat next to each other and across from Mr. Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who was a surprise guest at the meeting.

Afterward, Sgt. Crowley said the conversation was “frank,” “cordial and productive” but that 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,” Sgt. Crowley said in speaking to reporters at the AFL-CIO headquarters a few blocks from the White House.

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

“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, I’ve come to understand and appreciate their daily sacrifices on our behalf,” Mr. Gates wrote on www.theroot.com, where he serves as editor in chief.

“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 Sgt. Crowley “acted stupidly” when he took Mr. Gates from his house in handcuffs following a 911 call from a passer-by who thought Mr. Gates might be a burglar - 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 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, conducted Monday with 480 people and having a margin of error of 5.5 percentage points, came as 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 without their suit jackets, sat next to each other across from Mr. Gates and Sgt. 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 as Sgt. Crowley and Mr. Gates talked, 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 nonalcoholic beer, Sgt. Crowley drank Blue Moon and Mr. Gates sipped a Sam Adams Light.

Both men and their families received tours of the White House East Wing before the meeting. Sgt. Crowley said Mr. Gates approached him and his family 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.”

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