Obama Attempts Damage Control On Prof. Gates-Police Controversy

Updated at 4:05 PM:

The White House reports that President Barack Obama has talked with the recently arrested Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. Here's the short press release:

Readout of the President's Phone Call with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

The President called and connected with Professor Gates at 3:15 this afternoon. They had a positive discussion during which the President told Gates about his call with Sgt. Crowley and statement to the media. The President also invited Gates to join him with Sgt. Crowley at the White House in the near future.

————— original story below ———————-

President Barack Obama made a surprise appearance in the White House briefing room this afternoon as he tried to defuse the mounting controversy over his comment that the Cambridge, Mass. Police Department "acted stupidly" by arresting a Harvard University professor friend of his on a disorderly conduct charge.

The president's said he talked by phone with Police Sgt. James Crowley, the officer who arrested scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. after the police responded to a report of a burglary at Gates' house. Obama said his chat with Crowley confirmed his sense that the officer was an exemplary policeman and a "good man."

Then Obama said:

In my choice of words, I think I unfortunately gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge Police Department or Sergeant Crowley specifically. And I could have calibrated those words differently. And I told this to Sergeant Crowley.

I continue to believe based on what I have heard that there was an overreaction in pulling Professor Gates out of his home to the station. I also continue to believe based on what I heard that Professor Gates probably overreacted as well.

My sense is you've got two good people in a circumstance in which neither of them were able to resolve the incident in the way that it should have been resolved and the way they would have liked it to be resolved. The fact that it has garnered so much attention I think is a testimony to the fact that these are issues that still are very sensitive in America.

Being president means never having to say you're sorry and Obama never did apologize, sticking to his line that Gates' arrest was unnecessary.

Given that, it's an open question whether Obama's statement will pass muster with police in Massachusetts and beyond who have made it clear they want a presidential apology and who have said that Crowley was operating by the book.

Obama also continued to seem to want to make the story about race even though Crowley and the Cambridge police department have said race wasn't the issue. Obama said the Gates incident could become a "teachable moment" on the issues of policing and race.

My hope is, is that as a consequence of this event this ends up being what's called a "teachable moment," where all of us instead of pumping up the volume spend a little more time listening to each other and try to focus on how we can generally improve relations between police officers and minority communities, and that instead of flinging accusations we can all be a little more reflective in terms of what we can do to contribute to more unity. Lord knows we need it right now — because 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. (Laughter.)

I will not use this time to spend more words on health care, although I can't guarantee that that will be true next week. I just wanted to emphasize that — one last point I guess I would make. There are some who say that as President I shouldn't have stepped into this at all because it's a local issue. I have to tell you that that part of it I disagree with. The fact that this has become such a big issue I think is indicative of the fact that race is still a troubling aspect of our society. Whether I were black or white, I think that me commenting on this and hopefully contributing to constructive — as opposed to negative — understandings about the issue, is part of my portfolio.

In those comments the president acknowledged what has been obvious to many, his health-care agenda was being somewhat overwhelmed by all the media coverage to the Gates arrest controversy.

And even though he said that as president he felt he had a right to speak openly about Gates' arrest and the ensuing maelstrom, he probably won't win over many critics who believe that it was decidedly unpresidential for Obama to step into what was essentially a local police matter, specifically a disorderly conduct arrest.

In his effort to defuse the situation, Obama told reporters that Crowley had suggested that he, the president and Gates sit down at the White House for a beer. Obama said he didn't know if that had been scheduled but sounded like he was up for it.

Obama also drew laughs when he said Crowley complained about having the media on his front lawn. He asked the media in attendance to use their good offices to get their colleagues off Crowley's grass.

Whenever a president steps up to mic to make the kind of clarification Obama made today, it's because he knows he's got a real political problem on his hands that needs to be contained.

Obama has shown the ability to bounce back from such missteps, as he did when he won the Pennsylvania primary even after the controversy over his comments about rural Americans clinging to their guns and religion to fend off despair. So he has experience at this kind of damage control.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.