August 3, 2009
A Toast to the White House Beer Summit
After the White House Rose Garden beer summit happened, and after evaluating the coverage, I am not unhappy that it took place.
I think it's a net plus for the conservative cause. It distracted the media and deflected them from their usual fawning coverage of President Obama during a week that was critical to his defense of his universal health care plans. Most Americans think he made a mistake in how he handled the arrest of Prof. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and these judgments are reportedly contributing to Obama's declining popularity. All to the good there.
The beer summit also gave Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley access to a national platform. Listening to Crowley's focused post-beer summit meeting with the press, I kept thinking that someone is going to suggest to him that he run for office. He was that good. He's a natural -- a strong communicator, obviously a good guy, and a great representative of police officers (most of whom are dedicated public servants), and of fairness, truth, justice, and the American way.
He also emerged as having impressive diplomatic skills. According to a pool reporter from USA Today who was within earshot at the start of the beer summit, "Sgt. Crowley was doing most of the talking. Gates appeared to be leaning in, listening intently. At one point, POTUS (president of the United States) laughed heartily."
Unfazed by the White House setting and by hanging with Obama, Vice President Joe Biden (what was he doing there?), and scholar Gates, Crowley was strong and confident and held his ground -- both at the presser afterwards and apparently at the Rose Garden meeting itself. He deftly handled questions from the media (Gates meanwhile only issued a written statement), and was big enough as well to say that he will follow up with Gates. That's a very smart move politically - it shows that Crowley has the savvy to play politics at a high level, his skills no doubt honed in the über politically-correct minefield of the People's Republic of Cambridge. In addition, Crowley came across as very gracious, charitable, respectful, and fair. Nothing wrong with that nor with his agreeing to meet with Gates and the planned investigative panel that Cambridge officials are convening as long as he remains true to his values and sticks with his version of the arrest story as it happened, assuming there is still interest in that.
For those who missed Crowley's eleven minute long press conference, videos of it are online, as are transcripts. Here are some excerpts from CNN's live broadcast:
SERGEANT JAMES CROWLEY, CAMBRIDGE POLICE DEPARTMENT: I think what you had today was two gentlemen [who] agree[d] to disagree on a particular issue. I don't think that we spent too much time dwelling on the past.We spent a lot of time discussing the future. He's just a regular person sitting around a table having a discussion about an issue. And he -- just it was very cordial. I respect the man a great deal.QUESTION: Was there tension or could you guys sort of feel...CROWLEY: There was no tension.QUESTION: No tension?CROWLEY: No tension.QUESTION: Did you joke around and have an ordinary conversation?CROWLEY: We did.QUESTION: ... this business? Or was this business?CROWLEY: It was both. It was business, but discussing it like two gentlemen, instead of fighting it out either in the physical sense or in the mental sense, in the court of public opinion. . .CROWLEY: What was accomplished was that this was a positive step in moving forward, as opposed to reliving the events of the past couple of weeks, in an effort to move not just the city of Cambridge or two individuals past this event, but the whole country to move beyond this and use this as the basis of maybe some meaningful discussions in the future. . .QUESTION: What have you learned from this?CROWLEY: The media can find you no matter where you live.
In my view, Crowley emerged as the strongest player in this soap opera mini-drama, the one in the power position, because of the force of his arguments and the quality of his character compared with the others. A week ago, who would have thought that was possible?
For his part, Prof. Gates must also be given some praise and for that I also credit the influence that Crowley had on Gates. Amazingly, Gates put his previous rants aside and said positive things about the police in his post-beer summit written statement published online at the blog he edits, The Root. Will wonders never cease?
After the summit, Gates wrote:
"Sergeant Crowley and I, through an accident of time and place, have been cast together, inextricably, as characters - as metaphors, really - in a thousand narratives about race over which he and I have absolutely no control. . . It is incumbent upon Sergeant Crowley and me to utilize the great opportunity that fate has given us to foster greater sympathy among the American public for the daily perils of policing on the one hand, and for the genuine fears of racial profiling on the other hand. Let me say that I thank God that I live in a country in which police officers put their lives at risk to protect us every day, and, more than ever, I've come to understand and appreciate their daily sacrifices on our behalf. I'm also grateful that we live in a country where freedom of speech is a sacrosanct value and I hope that one day we can get to know each other better, as we began to do at the White House this afternoon over beers with President Obama."Thank God we live in a country where speech is protected, a country which guarantees and defends my right to speak out when I believe my rights have been violated; a country that protects us from arrest when we do express our views, no matter how unpopular. . ."The national conversation over the past week about my arrest has been rowdy, not to say tumultuous and unruly. But we've learned that we can have our differences without demonizing one another. There's reason to hope that many people have emerged with greater sympathy for the daily perils of policing, on the one hand, and for the genuine fears about racial profiling, on the other hand."Having spent my academic career trying to bridge differences and promote understanding among Americans, I can report that it is far more comfortable being the commentator than being commented upon. At this point, I am hopeful that we can all move on, and that this experience will prove an occasion for education, not recrimination. I know that Sergeant Crowley shares this goal. Both of us are eager to go back to work tomorrow. And it turns out that the President just might have a few other things on his plate as well."
Now, if Gates himself had tried to use the beer summit and his White House visit on behalf of his identity politics agenda, especially by appearing live on TV afterwards, I would feel differently. But instead, he immediately and quietly returned to his vacation home on Martha's Vineyard, issuing only a written statement (so far). The dominant impression/memory of the event is therefore Crowley's powerful, grounded, and articulate comments in his own words. Gates is also no longer implying that he might sue the Cambridge police. And any legal case he might have had seems to have evaporated in the light of day.
And further exposure, in my opinion, as this story grinds on can only harm Gates and his professional chip-on-his-shoulder attitude, at least among intelligent observers and probably independents. In any case, that attitude, which largely characterizes Gates' life's work, has been put on hold. Meanwhile, the more attention Crowley gets, the better he looks. His profile (he was totally unknown until two weeks ago) is being fleshed out and it's positive. He is not afraid to speak -- he gave several local Boston media interviews prior to the beer summit. (One of the first ones, on July 23, was to WBZ.) He's like Joe the Plumber, but maybe with legs or staying power.
In sum, I think the beer summit is a win-win for conservatives, and people like Sean Hannity, S.E. Cupp, and others on the right who strongly criticized the beer summit on the cable news channels immediately after it occurred might do better to acknowledge it as such and to hold their critical fire for more important fights, like health care.
Oh, and to those who criticize Obama for not apologizing for his July 22 police "acted stupidly" remark: I'm glad that he didn't. He showed his true colors. Now, there's one more thing on the record that he can be held accountable for. And it's nice to have him clear on this issue and not backing down. Meanwhile, the beer summit is no substitute for an Obama apology.
Obama is a politician, ultimately a very skillful and successful one -- to this point. (Perhaps the beer summit is a start to unraveling his perfect image.) What did we expect him to do after his comments at the July 22, 2009 press conference that started him down the road to this mess? After he stepped in it, he could have done worse, in my opinion. With his actions after the press conference faux pas, he took everything down a number of notches. And what ultimately transpired reflected his innately cool looking approach to things, which, even if insubstantial much of the time, worked out well in this case. He convened the beer summit, and then largely stayed in the background, allowing -- of all things -- Sgt. Crowley to emerge. Amazingly, Obama avoided grandstanding and, as Crowley said afterwards, mainly was there to provide the beers and the opportunity to let the others speak. How refreshing is that!
And, to reiterate (this may be the beer summit's most important legacy), during the week that the media were preoccupied with this story, it meant less time for Obama being able to sell his universal health care plans. And his positive rating in the opinion polls took a hit, too, in part because of his ham fisted comments at the July 22 press conference that led to the beer summit in the first place. As the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reported in a survey titled "Obama's Ratings Slide Across the Board - The Economy, Health Care Reform and Gates Grease the Skids" on July 30: "Obama's comments on the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. appear to have played some role in his ratings decline."
Peter Barry Chowka is a writer and investigative journalist who writes about politics, health care, and the media.