Although I don’t agree with President Obama on many policy issues, his “beer summit” last week turned out to be a novel and very effective way of using the power of the presidency to defuse a potentially volatile situation.
And while it remains to be seen what the longer term effects will be, it may turn out to have a significant positive impact on race relations going forward.
The controversy erupted a few days earlier, when African-American Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates accused Boston police Sgt. James Crowley of racial profiling.
In the early days, there weren’t enough facts for anyone to draw a conclusion on either side. And then the president made a mistake. At a press conference on health care, a reporter asked him to comment on the episode. The president shouldn’t have taken the bait -- he just didn’t know enough about what happened to offer an informed view. But instead, he said, “Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof he was in his own home.”
At this point, two things happened. A number of facts, including 911 tapes, began to point very strongly to the conclusion that Crowley was just doing his job in responding to a call and that race likely didn’t play a part in the incident. The second thing was that national police groups began to put pressure on Obama to apologize for his remarks, which is a big deal politically.
Things could have gotten ugly, but somebody -- maybe the president himself -- had a great idea. Why not bring Gates and Crowley to the White House for a beer with the president and see if they couldn’t talk it through? Was it a political stunt? Sure. One of the best ever.
When was the last time something like that happened?
But it also changed the conversation, and more importantly, allowed Gates an opportunity to back away from his charges in light of the facts that had emerged. Everyone saved face, everyone moved on.
I still think Obama owes Crowley, and police officers generally, an apology. But this little gesture looks like a graceful way to end something that could have been much worse.
Racism is an ugly part of our country’s history, and the simple act of bringing two men together over a beer can’t help but show that we’re all just folks who can get along fine if we’d only bother to get to know one another.
Rob Witwer, currently lives in Genesee and is a former member of the state House of Representatives.