When Barack Obama addressed Gates-gate during his health care presser and said that the Cambridge police and Sgt. James Crowley had “acted stupidly” immediately after admitting he didn’t know the facts of the matter, he was out of line, and off-message. He had crossed the line between responsible executive and hectoring, race-conscious bully, and in doing so he drew attention away from his reform message.
So give him credit for walking back those comments today in an unexpected appearance at a White House briefing. The AP quoted him saying “[t]his has been ratcheting up, and I obviously helped to contribute ratcheting it up.” He mentioned his belief that Sgt. Crowley was an outstanding officer, and offered this reflection:
The fact that it has garnered so much attention, I think, is a testimony to the fact that these are issues that are still very sensitive here in America, and — you know, so to the extent that my choice of words didn’t illuminate but rather contributed to more media frenzy, I think that was unfortunate. What I would like to do, then, is to make sure that everybody steps back for a moment, recognizes that these are two decent people.
That seems like a judicious take on the situation: from what we can tell, it was at root an unfortunate misunderstanding between Sgt. Crowley and Gates that just happened to flare up. Perhaps Gates could have played it cooler, but both sides acted at least legally and more or less appropriately. It’s a matter of a cultural rift more than personal misconduct. So give Obama credit for admitting that he was responsible for exacerbating a situation that wouldn’t have arisen without the exact kind of public suspicion that he helped fuel with his comments.
But, take credit away for his proposed solution:
Obama suggested the whole incident could be worked out over a drink. “There was discussion about he [Sgt. Crowley] and I and Professor Gates having a beer here in the White House. We don’t know if that is scheduled yet, but we may put that together.”
Much as the Hallmark Channel would love to see the screenplay for the story of the white cop and the black professor hugging it out in the White House, this is a bad idea on two levels.
First, didn’t Obama just get through saying that it was just the kind of prejudiced reaction that he expressed that made a small incident in Cambridge, Massachusetts, into a full-blown national culture war showdown? The only way we’ll overcome these “sensitive issues” if people become less sensitive about them. If they’re always being thrust onto the biggest stage possible, it’s hard to see how that process of dialing down the overwrought sensitivities will come about.
Second, there comes a point when the president has to extricate himself from the situation. Does he really want to be the mediator in this conflict? It’s a little ridiculous to think that two grown men in Cambridge are too pouty to resolve their own issues, and so they have to fly down to Washington, D.C. to meet with the babysitter-in-chief, who tells them to shake hands and play nice. As good as that would look politically (and for sure it would improve on the image of Obama baiting a cop on national television), wouldn’t it be nicer for the situation to be resolved the way it should be, on the lowest level possible?
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