One Beer Doesn't Solve Racial Divide

President Obama invited two men at the center of a racially-charged controversy to share a beer with him Thursday evening in the Rose Garden. Afterwards, one of the men called it a positive step for the whole country.

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Rarely in the history of politics has so much been owed by so many to so few beers. President Obama invited two men at the center of a racially charged controversy to share a beer with him last evening in the Rose Garden at the White House. This event was so intensely anticipated that the White House press secretary even told us in advance which beer - which brand of beer the president was expected to drink. Afterward, one of the men called it a positive step for the whole country. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: There's no such thing as a casual beer at the White House, especially when the people drinking are a prominent black professor from Harvard and the white police sergeant who arrested him. News photographers clicked away like mad as Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Sergeant Jim Crowley sipped their beer and munched peanuts, along with President Obama and a surprise guest, Vice President Biden.

Mr. Obama professed to be surprised at the media's fascination with the evening. Breathless headline writers had dubbed it the beer summit.

President BARACK OBAMA: This is not a summit, guys. This is three folks having a drink at the end of the day and hopefully giving people an opportunity to listen to each other.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama suggested there hadn't been enough listening two weeks ago when Professor Gates was spotted forcing his way into his own home in Cambridge and mistaken for a burglar. Sergeant Crowley answered the 911 call and a tense confrontation ensued. Gates was arrested for disorderly conduct, though the charge was later dropped.

During a news conference last week, Mr. Obama said the police had acted stupidly, which he later admitted was an unfortunate choice of words. White voters disapproved of his comments by a two-to-one margin. By inviting Gates and Crowley to the White House, the president hoped to make amends and put to rest a story that was stealing the spotlight from his health care agenda.

President OBAMA: These are people involved, including myself, all of whom are imperfect. And hopefully instead of ginning up anger and hyperbole, you know, everybody can just spend a little bit of time with some self-reflection and recognizing that other people have different points of view.

HORSLEY: In the short run, though, the beer invitation became a big story of its own, with daily questions about what brand of beer the men would drink and what the president hoped people would take away from the meeting. CNN ran a countdown clock, ticking off the minutes until cocktail hour. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said that's a lot of pressure for one 12 ounce beverage.

Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (White House Press Secretary): I don't think the president has outsized expectations that one cold beer is going to change massively the course of human history, but that he and the two individuals - Sergeant Crowley and Professor Gates - can hopefully provide a far different picture than what we've seen to date.

HORSLEY: The White House got the picture it wanted: Crowley and Gates raising a glass together alongside the president. Gates later released a statement saying he hoped the experience would be an occasion for education, not recrimination. And Crowley said the two men had agreed to keep talking.

Sergeant JIM CROWLEY (Cambridge Police Department): Certainly he has the credentials to enlighten me a little bit. And I think that perhaps the professor, as he expressed to me, has a willingness to listen to what my perspective is as a police officer and the difficult jobs that police officers do everyday. So the professor was quite receptive to that.

HORSLEY: Crowley suggested the two men's next meeting will be a private one at a less prominent address, and without all those cameras. Maybe they'll serve Kool-Aid, he said, instead of beer.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.

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