Offering cold beer and careful words, President Barack Obama is trying to bury a political distraction and show the nation how conversation can help ease racial conflict. Just don’t expect to hear much Thursday evening: The moment billed as teachable won’t be that reachable for the masses.
Obama is going to a have a beer — that all-American bonding gesture — with the two men he joined last week at the center of an uproar over race in America: Henry Louis Gates Jr., a Harvard professor who is black, and James Crowley, a Cambridge, Mass. police sergeant who is white.
A dispute over their behavior when Crowley investigated a potential burglary at Gates’ house exploded into a national debate on racial profiling, fueled further when Obama said the police “acted stupidly.”
The episode has come at a political cost for the president, stealing attention from his agenda and drawing negative public reviews on how he handled the matter.
Now comes the photo-op moment of diplomacy.
The White House, which initially wanted just to lower the volume of a racially charged debate, has since been lowering expectations of what this meeting is about.
“I don’t think the president has outsized expectations that one cold beer at one table here is going to change massively the course of human history,” presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters on Thursday.
It was Obama himself who said the episode could be a “teachable moment” on improving relations between police and minority communities.
For now, his stated agenda is simply to allow for a good, productive conversation among the three men. The hope, in turn, is that people in communities across the nation will see the meeting as a model for how to solve differences — more listening, less shooting from the lip.
Yet a parallel goal for Obama is to cap this story and move attention back to his push for a national health care overhaul.
After all the buildup, the public won’t see much. By design.
Obama, Gates and Crowley are expected to have their beers at a table near the Rose Garden. Gibbs said they will make no statements in the presence of the media. Reporters, photographers and video crews will be kept out of earshot. The whole public exposure may last less than a minute.
It should be just in time to get positive pictures of the men on the nightly network newscasts.
The actual meeting itself will go on after that, in private. Gates and Crowley are expected to have their families with them for tours and pictures.
“I hope it’s more than media hype. I really hope that it’s a moment where everyone acknowledges the complexity of race relations in our country,” said Kelly McBride, a specialist in ethics at the Poynter Institute journalism center.
“Everybody can walk out of the meeting thinking exactly what they thought walking in, and that would be fine,” she said. “But I would hope they would understand the others’ positions. If they get that far, it could be a model for what we should be doing when things like this happen again. Because it’s going to happen again.”
In the incident that started everything, Crowley took Gates into custody, accusing him of disorderly conduct in his protesting of police behavior. The charge was soon dropped.
Since then, the rhetoric has eased, if not the underlying tensions.
At the time, Gates demanded an apology from Crowley and called him a “rogue policeman.” Obama said the Cambridge policed “acted stupidly” in arresting Gates when he had shown proof he was in his home. Crowley said that, while he supported the president, Obama was “way off base wading into a local issue without knowing all the facts.”
Gibbs said before Thursday’s meeting: “We’re not here to mediate apologies.”
A new poll by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found that 41 percent disapprove of 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 Obama’s comments on the matter.