WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Barack Obama played bartender-in-chief on Thursday at a “beer summit” of the main players in a racially charged case that he hoped would be a “positive lesson” in a national dialogue on race.
Obama, the first black U.S. president, said it was a “friendly, thoughtful” conversation over beer at the White House with prominent Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, who is black, and police Sergeant James Crowley, who is white.
Crowley arrested Gates, a well-known documentary filmmaker, for disorderly conduct on July 16 after a confrontation at the professor’s home, sparking a media frenzy as Gates, 58, accused the policeman of racial profiling. Crowley, who had taught courses against racial profiling, denied that.
Obama inflamed the situation by saying he thought police “acted stupidly” in arresting his friend.
“I have always believed that what brings us together is stronger than what pulls us apart,” Obama said in a statement after the meeting in a garden outside the Oval Office.
“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.”
Race remains a prominent and sensitive issue in the United States, which has struggled to overcome a legacy of slavery, segregation and discrimination.
Crowley said it as a private and frank discussion, adding he and Gates have different perspectives.
“I think what you had today was two gentlemen who agreed to disagree on a particular issue,” Crowley told reporters. “I don’t think that we spent too much time dwelling on the past. We spent a lot of time discussing the future.”
Asked about the president’s contribution to the meeting, Crowley said: “He provided the beer.”
Gates said he and Crowley had been cast together “through an accident of time and place” and must use the opportunity “to foster greater sympathy among the American public for the daily perils of policing on the one hand, and for the genuine fears of racial profiling on the other hand.”
Obama’s job approval rating has fallen from 61 percent in mid-June to 54 percent now, in part due to his handling of the Gates-Crowley situation, a Pew Research Center poll found.
Obama and the White House had tried to lower expectations for the gathering, saying there would be no big announcements and portraying it as just three guys having a beer.
The menu for the meeting round an outside table in the warm Washington afternoon featured each man’s preferred brew: Bud Light for Obama, Blue Moon for Crowley and Sam Adams Light for Gates. Vice President Joe Biden, also at the table, had a Buckler nonalcoholic beer.
The men drank from clear glass mugs and munched on peanuts and pretzels served in small silver bowls. Gates and Crowley brought their families to the White House and they toured the East Wing together before they sat down with Obama.
A national debate about the arrest, the reaction and the “beer summit” carried into evening news shows as commentators dissected the implications of the meeting for the race issue.
Crowley arrested Gates after being dispatched to the house to investigate a possible burglary in progress. Gates had returned from a trip to China to discover his door jammed.
Obama’s remark about the arrest during a televised news conference became a major talking point in the United States, with critics saying he had insulted Crowley and the police department in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Some conservative commentators have accused Obama of racism.
After a two-day frenzy that distracted public attention from Obama’s push to reform the U.S. healthcare system, the president called Crowley to say he should have chosen his words more carefully. The White House meeting grew out of that conversation.
(Additional reporting by JoAnne Allen; Editing by John O’Callaghan)