Friday, July 31, 2009

It was a “teachable moment” in which the instructor didn’t say a word, and his “students” were so far away that they couldn’t even ask a question, let alone hear the answer.

President Obama - who created a racial maelstrom last week when he said a white police officer in Cambridge, Mass., acted stupidly when arresting a black Harvard professor angered over being asked why he was breaking into a home (that turned out to be his own) - skipped an opportunity to lecture on racial harmony, instead opting for a pretty, but silent, picture in the White House Rose Garden.

After a week of hype over the first-ever “White House Hoppy Hour,” a small group of White House reporters and TV crew members was trotted out to the Rose Garden for a “pool spray” late Thursday. Instead of strolling up to the principals as usual, the press corps was held some 50 feet away from the small, white table on a walkway to the South Lawn, well out of shouting distance.

There, Mr. Obama, the nation’s first black president, and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. - jackets sloughed off, their sleeves rolled up like they were getting down to work - sat across from the two principals, Sgt. James Crowley and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., who were looking stiff in their full suits and squeezed-tight ties.

In the 30 seconds of silent tape caught by TV cameras, Mr. Obama stretched forward to snatch a handful of something from a bowl on the table - beer nuts? - and then leaned toward Sgt. Crowley to say … well, something. Mr. Biden laughed at … well, something.

It was a “teachable moment” for … well, someone. Did Mr. Gates, Sgt. Crowley, have something to say? Who knows. The “Suds Summit” became the “Silent Summit,” a flat beer.

In front of each man, a beer mug - no sense having Hollywood-style product placement. Mr. Biden laughed; Mr. Obama laughed; the other two men didn’t. Sgt. Crowley sipped his beer; Mr. Gates sat back in his chair, listening, or not. The TV cameras were ushered out - one cameraman, from Fox News, walked out so quickly he spun the camera and shot the exit for a good 10 seconds.

Mr. Obama convened the so-called summit after calling both men last week in an attempt to defuse the political fallout from his surprisingly undiplomatic comment at a July 22 news conference.

The racial brew-ha-ha was black and white, but also gray. One of the foremost U.S. scholars on African-American affairs, Mr. Gates was arrested after police received a call that two men might be attempting a break-in at a house in the hometown of Harvard. Instead, Mr. Gates “broke in” to his own home when the door lock jammed.

On the other side, Sgt. Crowley is a veteran police officer who is so versed on racial profiling that he teaches a police academy class on the subject. When Mr. Gates overreacted to the police inquiries, Sgt. Crowley overreacted by arresting the professor outside his home.

Mr. Obama made the minor incident front-page news when he weighed in on it, despite having said that “not having been there and not seeing all the facts,” he really had no idea exactly what happened.

Forget health care - boooor-ing. Heading into the August, inside-the-Beltway lull, here was a story reporters could sink their teeth into - without having to read a 1,000-page bill.

But before it even came off, top aides were downplaying the meeting. “The president is not going to announce anything,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said. “There’s no formal agenda.”

In the days before the summit, the choice of beer each man would imbibe was breaking news.

Sgt. Crowley chose Blue Moon, which touts itself right on its label as a “Belgian White.” Mr. Gates, who screamed that police were questioning him because that’s “what happens to black men in America,” chose a Red Stripe, a beer from Jamaica, where more than 80 percent of the population is black (although at the White House, the professor - no dummy - had opted for a local Boston brew, Sam Adams Light).

Mr. Obama, who invited the two men to the White House on Thursday to douse the racial fire, picked a Budweiser, the beer of choice at NASCAR races and pool halls across white America, but also big in the black community, especially after its “Wazzup” ad campaign. And Mr. Biden, walking the middle ground, weighed in with a Buckler, Heineken’s nonalcoholic beer (and a favorite of former President George W. Bush, a teetotaler).

The photo-op was quickly renamed by Washington wags. CBS News’ Mark Knoller dubbed it “The Beer of the Year.” Others floated witty names like “Mug It Out,” “The Audacity of Hops,” “Coalition of the Swilling” and “Red, Light and Blue” (as in Red Stripe, Bud Light and Blue Moon). The best of the lot was, of course, “Yes, Three Cans.”

But no matter how they poured it, the administration was suddenly off message - and losing badly.

A poll by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found that 41 percent disapproved of Mr. Obama’s handling of the Gates arrest, compared with 29 percent who approved. The poll also found that nearly 80 percent of Americans said they are now aware of the president’s comments on the matter, which came at the end of a press conference in which he took seven questions on his health care plan.

After the brew-thru, Mr. Obama issued a written statement, akin to a Cliffs Notes.

“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,” he wrote.

Joseph Curl can be reached at jcurl@washingtontimes .com.

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