Jul 30, 2009 21 Comments ›› Erik Wong
WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama must once again hit the pause button in his drive to overhaul health care to revisit the racially charged issue that stole the spotlight from his top legislative priority – the arrest of his Harvard professor friend.
Obama, Cambridge, Mass., police Sgt. James Crowley and Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., will meet at the White House on Thursday, each one drinking his favorite beer, in a public attempt to move past the emotional event.
Obama convened the “beer summit” after calling both men last week in an attempt to defuse the political fallout from his comment at a news conference that police had “acted stupidly” in arresting Gates at his home after responding to a call from a passer-by about a possible break-in
He invited both men over for beer, to be served at a picnic table near his Oval Office if thunderstorms forecast for Thursday hold off.
Gates, who is black, was taken into custody by Crowley, who is white, after Crowley accused him of disorderly conduct for protesting the policeman’s actions. The charges were later dropped.
The comments by Obama, the nation’s first black president, inflamed matters further, and the subsequent outcry and constant commentary reached such a pitch that he was forced to acknowledge that he could have been more diplomatic with his words.
“Over the last two days as we’ve discussed this issue, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but nobody has been paying much attention to health care,” Obama lamented to reporters last Friday.
Crowley is looking forward to the meeting, according to a spokeswoman for Cambridge and Massachusetts police unions that support him. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Crowley is bringing family members with him.
Andy Meyer, one of Crowley’s softball teammates, said, “He’s aware it’s a big opportunity to meet the president, but my friend Jim is a charming guy and I won’t be surprised if the president and Professor Gates find him to be as pleasant as he is.”
Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree, an attorney for Gates, said late Wednesday: “This will be an important opportunity for the moment to settle their dispute, but also create a springboard for a larger discussion about how law enforcement interacts with minority communities and how we can figure out a way to both enforce the law but also protect civil liberties and civil rights of our citizens.”
Gates will be accompanied by his father, fiancee, two daughters, brother, Ogletree and one of his close friends, Glen Hutchinson.
“No apologies will be expected or conveyed tomorrow,” Ogletree said. “The idea is to extend an opportunity for people to meet others that they didn’t know and they only met in the most tense of circumstances.”
But the nation did hear for the first time from Lucia Whalen, the passer-by who placed the 911 call to report a possible break-in at Gates’ home. In a trembling voice, Whalen said she was pained to be wrongly labeled a racist based on words she never said. Police said the caller had reported a possible break-in by two black men.
Tapes of the call released this week revealed that Whalen did not mention the race of the suspects. Only when pressed by a dispatcher did she say that one of the two men she saw at Gates’ door might have been Hispanic.
Her attorney, Wendy Murphy, said the three men overreacted, while Whalen was the only one who remained cool.
“The three highly trained guys who reacted badly are getting together for a beer,” Murphy said. “The one person whose actions have been exemplary will be at work tomorrow in Cambridge. I don’t know – maybe it’s a guy thing. She doesn’t like beer anyway.”
It will be Bud Light for Obama, Blue Moon for Crowley and Red Stripe for Gates, the White House says.