Obama’s beer diplomacy

Why it was important the President spoke up about the incident involving Henry Louis Gates


Obama’s beer diplomacyAn African-American president and a high-profile case involving allegations of racial profiling certainly make for a powerful mix. The arrest of Henry Louis Gates  should have been a regrettable one-day news story. But Barack Obama’s intervention at last week’s press conference helped escalate it into a matter only a meeting between the parties at the White House over beer—with the president himself as conciliator—could be expected to resolve. Talk about over-dramatization!

Obama was right to meet the national press on Friday afternoon to bring the temperature down and correct the trajectory of his earlier remarks. After all, his comment rendering a judgment on the Cambridge police actions (“[they] acted stupidly”), prefaced by an admission that “he did not have all the facts” was sure to send shockwaves. Conservative commentators, led by Rush Limbaugh, quickly pounced and condemned Obama’s remarks, while the local police union adding that an apology would be appropriate in the circumstances. The so-called bully pulpit evidently has its advantages, but it also comes with constraints.

There was also much to do over the weekend on the news talk shows over whether Obama should have intervened or not when he was asked about Gates’s arrest last Wednesday. Some went so far as to psychoanalyze his intervention, suggesting it was an example of the inner conflict between Obama the black person and Obama the president. True, the usually cautious Obama strayed into minefield territory. I wonder, however, whether his remarks could not have just as easily been made by a white president. For example, I recall President George H.W. Bush in the early 1990’s saying he was sickened when he saw a video showing white policemen assaulting a black man in the course of an arrest. And would a Bill Clinton have avoided to answer a legitimate question about what seemed to be a false arrest with potential racial overtones ?

It is quite legitimate to argue that the evidence was inconclusive at the time of the presidential press conference and Obama should therefore have withheld judgment to avoid making comments about what can be a moral issue. However, it is a tough call for a president to make. Progress can only be achieved if leaders dare to speak out based on their values and principles. So while I agree that Obama could have used different words, the issue of racial profiling is still very much a fact of life in America. Leaders must speak up—even on moral issues.

The current media discussion and the eventual beer summit is sure to keep the story on the cable news shows for days ahead. Though it has pushed health-care reform to the background, this is in all likelihood a healthy development  because Obama’s election may have been a significant and historic step but it was not the final step. America is fortunate to have a sitting president who has made every effort to transcend race in his quest for the presidency. His decision to readjust his message last Friday was a sign of maturity, grace and leadership. This should facilitate dialogue on divisive issues and build trust.

Gates, arguably a victim in this incident, is a product of another generation, one where profiling was very much a fact of life that few questioned back when the renowned professor was forming his views on life. That he overreacted is probably not an understatement, but it is also not surprising. The police officer involved, Sgt. Crowley, is also a victim. This is a man who teaches recruits how to avoid racial profiling in the course of a policeman’s duty. His partner, an African-American, claims that the arrest was not racially motivated, and there is more and more evidence that he is correct in his assessment. Still, a 57 year old man, with a cane and in his own home, should not have been arrested even if he had admittedly been acting belligerently during and after the intervention of the police. The fact the charges were dropped so quickly indicates as much. That the police overreacted to verbal abuse is becoming more obvious by the day .

Progress on racial issues necessitates time, patience, understanding and good judgment. America has changed but it is still in need of perfecting its union. Through the years, change has taken place through sound political judgment, courageous political action, and enlightened judicial decisions. Unfortunately, a beer at the White House will not solve the contentious issues related to race. But it is a powerful symbol that the first African-American president is sitting down with two individuals who confronted each other, one white and one black, to talk about an incident with racial implications in a presidential mansion built by African-American slaves. This is indeed a teachable moment.


Obama’s beer diplomacy

  1. If I was Sgt. Crowley, there is no way would I go to White House for 10 minutes of hectoring from the president and a Harvard prof about racist America.

    The problem here, I think, is that Gates, Obama and many others seem to think cops behave like they are coming around for a tea party while dealing with anyone who isn't black or latino. And speaking as a white person who has had a few run-ins with police, that just isn't the case.

    What happened to Gates falls in a gray area. Is expressing 'contempt for police officers' a crime? Probably not but police also have a duty to keep the incident from escalating into something worse and arresting irate people is one way to do that.

  2. Say what you want , this is a teachable moment . The cop did his job by showing up and investigating the premises. What he failed to do was calm his own temper . Let Gates yell all he wants and say nasty things . But arrest him ? For what?Trespassing? In his own home ?

    Arresting Gates was stupid . Oops. I may have offended the Boston police .
    Grow up guys . This is part of why you carry a weapon -to exercise restraint . Gates overreacted and so did Crowley.
    This cop may not be racist but cops generally have a condescending attitude . Ever get a speeding ticket?
    Jolyon is dead wrong to condone arresting irate people . Read the constitution , buddy.

    • This is part of why you carry a weapon -to exercise restraint .

      Right. Crowley should have used his weapon on Gates. In the name of "exercising restraint". Why didn't I think of that…that would have gone over much better than just arresting him on a nuisance charge.

      • you are not too smart on this one ,john g. Very disappointing to see how you distort my words . I hope you were joking .That is why we need to dialogue rather than making things up to prove your point .

        • Of course I was joking…just pointing out the silliness of equating carrying a weapon with exercising restraint.

  3. The reality is that both the cop and the victim acted like jerks, and caused a minor understanding to drag the President into their sad little worlds. They were both stupid, and Obama was stupid for calling it stupid. Stupid is as stupid does, and this is incredibly stupid. End of story.

    • Come to think of it , this comment makes sense.Time to turn the page .

  4. What a beautiful piece of commentary by Mr. Parisella. What more can we ask as an unbiased point of view, mentioning all aspects of the issue. The vocal right, yes, we sem to have one this side of the border, has been especially vocal in reacting to the author's comments on previous subjects. Too bad that those with a negative point of view are more enclined to let their opinion known than those who react favorably. It seems to be part of human nature to critize more than to congratulate.

  5. While I generally agree with the writer, profiling is a useful tool for both police and security and it is not just applied to Muslims or black men. My mother was born in Ireland and came to Canada as a child – as an adult when she visited the UK for the first time since she left in the early 1970's (at the height of "the troubles') she was pulled aside and questioned intensely for about 2 hours because she fit the profile of an IRA supporter – born in the Free State of Ireland, was from Canada/US, middle aged woman – they wanted to know who in Ireland she was visiting, how much money she was bringing into the country, etc. etc.. Whenever she returned to the UK on follow up visits, even through she was a Canadian citizen, she was always questioned a little more closely that others on the flight. Yes, security people were wrong, but given their experience and the situation, it was an appropriate thing to do. It was also appropriate that my mother asked their questions clearly so that she could get on with her holiday.

  6. This is probably, by far, Parisella's best commentary . Bringing two guys for a beer was a capital move by the president. What I like about Obama's approach to crises is how he responds when the stakes are so high. He just knows what to do when he is in hot water. Maybe someone should give him an honorary degree in crisis management..

    • In honor or the administration's transparency, I recommend Guiness.

  7. I can certainly agree with the statement that racial profiling is a problem that still exists today.

    Unfortunately, the President using this incident to talk about the evils of racial profiling, when it's become quite clear that the police were not motivated by race at all, is a significant step backwards. Police officers across the country may second guess themselves because of this incident in situations where they should not, or must not. Grievance mongers who see racism behind every door have discovered that they have an ally in the White House, who will take their cause to his bully pulpit even in the flimsiest of circumstances. None of these results can be construed as a positive for race relations.

    • Relax on this one ,john g. It can't be a step backwards when people talk . I was watching a documentary on the 60's . They used police dogs and fire hoses. You may not like Obama and that is your right but on this one , he is doing the right thing . The solution is not through stereotyping but conversing . Trust me I have been there all my life .

      • Well, it depends on who is doing the talking.

        Giving a soap box to guys like Al Sharpton, Gates, et al, to get worked up into a frenzy about racial profiling when it in fact didn't occur in this case does more harm than good when Obama escalates it into international view. Guys like Gates need to learn that just because a white cop asked him to provide ID doesn't mean that there is any racial profiling going on in this particular case. Does racial profiling happen? Of course it does. But it's not the 1960's anymore. And race hustlers like Sharpton and Gates, who no doubt have first hand experience with the issue, fall into the trap of making everything look like a nail because the only tool they have is a hammer.

  8. Only one small problem here–Obama CAUSED the crisis. Once a community organizer, always a community organizer. They are, aren't they about one step below a School Trustee?
    I see the 911 call didn't even mention race.

    • He did not cause it but as President , he had to answer the question . He made an unfortunate choice of a word and corrected himself .Showed class and smarts . I am still waiting for Bush to correct himself on Iraq. Over 4000 Americans died for a lie .

      • A capital response! Bravo

  9. There is hope yet …. CNN banners breaking news in the Michael Jackson case.

  10. “Conservative commentators, led by Rush Limbaugh…”

    These people are to be ignored in all circumstances.

    Also: “Gates, arguably a victim in this incident…”

    *Arguably* a victim? Are you serious? I hereby reserve the right to mouth off to anybody – anybody – who invades my home. Gates didn’t make a single violent move. He is NOT required to kiss a cop’s ass, and most certainly didn’t deserve to be arrested for VERBAL belligerence! That stupid cop, like so many others in our society, abused his discretionary powers of arrest, as evidenced by the immediate dismissal of the charges against Gates.

    Jesus, for all the blah-blah-blah about freedom, the right wing sure is comfortable with expanding police powers.

  11. Everything Parisella writes is biased, regardless of whether it is negative or positive.

    • I don't get it. Are you saying that people are ''biased'' when they have a different opinion than yours?

      It's a ''blog''.

  12. Lesson #1 – Regardless of race, when the police ask for your ID, give it to them and avoid making obscene remarks.

    Lesson #2 – When dealing with minority groups, always use kids gloves or you may be accused of being a racist.

  13. Kudos to John Parisella for a well balanced analysis.
    Assuming we have all the facts – I can find no justification for the Officer's response to what was a de facto trespass – try and enter my property without a warrant Officer – and I'll have you arrested.
    I – of white face – was in a similar position a few years back. Working in my basement office in a very rural location I heard a helicopter circling overhead. Went outside and recognized one of the OPP whirlybirds. Checked with my local media friends – no-one had a clue at that point. Shortly after, my dogs barked – I went out and found two ETF troopers in full battle gear – WITH CAMOUFLAGE Paint on their faces – and automatics at the ready – apparently "warning" residents of a dangerous offender in the neighbourhood. This was the same ETF team that had taken down a man near a school a few miles away – because they had a report "of an armed man near the school". Turned out to be someone who had been asked to eliminate some intrusive groundhogs – but that was after they had put him on the ground and put the handcuffs on…