By Michael A. Fletcher and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, July 25, 2009
President Obama, attempting to quell a mushrooming racial controversy that threatened to eclipse his top domestic initiative, expressed regret Friday for saying that police "acted stupidly" by arresting black scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. at his home near Harvard University.
Making a surprise appearance before reporters at the White House, Obama said that he had unwittingly fanned smoldering racial resentment with his response to a question at a news conference Wednesday night. The president said he conveyed that sentiment in a five-minute telephone call to Sgt. James Crowley, the police officer who arrested Gates after being called to the Harvard professor's home to check out a suspected burglary.
"I want to make clear that in my choice of words I think I unfortunately gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge Police Department or Sergeant Crowley specifically -- and I could have calibrated those words differently," Obama said. "And I told this to Sergeant Crowley."
The Wednesday comment had become politically costly for the nation's first African American president, who has sought to cast himself as a clear-eyed arbiter of the nation's racial divisions.
That image was challenged once before, in a controversy surrounding another Obama friend. When the racially charged sermons of the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. became a lightning rod, candidate Obama gave a rare speech that directly addressed the country's racial wounds, and he cast aside Wright, someone he had once called a father figure.
This week, as a growing clamor from conservative critics and police representatives painted Obama as siding with his friend Gates in a battle with the police in Cambridge, Mass., Obama moved swiftly to remove himself as a combatant.
The president said he continues to think the arrest was an "overreaction" by the officer, but he said Gates "probably overreacted as well."
"My sense is you've got two good people in a circumstance in which neither of them were able to resolve the incident in the way that it should have been resolved," Obama said, adding that he hoped the controversy would become a "teachable moment" for improving racial understanding.
Though he tried to remove the bite from his earlier statement, Obama described an uneasy relationship between African Americans and law enforcement.
"Because of our history, because of the difficulties of the past, you know, African Americans are sensitive to these issues," said Obama, who sponsored legislation to track the racial breakdown of drivers stopped by police when he was an Illinois state senator. "And even when you've got a police officer who has a fine track record on racial sensitivity, interactions between police officers and the African American community can sometimes be fraught with misunderstanding."
But the president rejected the notion that, as Crowley said Thursday, he was wrong to take a position on the incident. Any president, he insisted, has a responsibility to contribute constructively to the discussion of racial discord, which he called "a troubling aspect of our society."
"There are some who say that as president I shouldn't have stepped into this at all because it's a local issue. I have to tell you that that part of it I disagree with," he said. "Whether I were black or white, I think that me commenting on this and hopefully contributing to constructive -- as opposed to negative -- understandings about the issue is part of my portfolio."
The controversy has become a lesson for Obama's young presidency, reminding him of the raw sensitivities surrounding race and its ability to distract. Determined not to let the issue distract from the discussion of health care, his top domestic priority, Obama moved within 48 hours from shrugging off the controversy surrounding his comments to coming before the cameras to recalibrate them.
From the moment the word "stupidly" slipped through Obama's lips Wednesday night, debate over Gates's arrest became a polarizing national issue. Obama's top advisers said the president quickly became aware that his words had been received in a way he had not intended.
"We all read the newspapers," said David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Obama. "It was obvious from [Thursday] morning on that this discussion had taken on a life of its own."
The morning after the news conference, conservative blogs and police union representatives pummeled the president for not being more supportive of law enforcement. At first, the White House was publicly dismissive of the controversy.
In an interview with ABC News's "Nightline" on Thursday, Obama defended his words, saying that he was surprised at the controversy they had stirred. "I thought it was a pretty straightforward commentary that you probably don't need to handcuff a guy, a middle-aged guy who uses a cane, who's in his own home," he said.
On Thursday, just hours before Obama spoke to reporters, press secretary Robert Gibbs said the president had not made any attempt to talk to Gates, Crowley or anyone else involved in the case.
"If he realized how much of a overall distraction and obsession it would be, I think he would probably regret distracting you guys with obsessions," Gibbs said.
He added: "I think he's said what he's going to say on this."
Aides would not say what finally convinced Obama to revisit the issue.
Shortly after Gibbs's remarks, police officers in Cambridge denounced the president's statement and demanded an apology in a news conference carried live on cable news channels. Dennis O'Connor, president of the Cambridge Police Superior Officers Association, said the Cambridge police "deeply resent the implication" that race was a factor in the decision to take Gates into custody.
"The president used the right adjective but directed it to the wrong party," O'Connor said.
Axelrod hinted that the police news conference at least in part prompted Obama's remarks.
"We live in a dynamic world. You can see issues evolving and how they are evolving. He was well aware of that," Axelrod said. "His reaction is: 'You know what? Let's deal with it. Let's confront it.' "
It was not the first time that Obama has been forced to quell a public relations storm he created with comments that, in retrospect, seemed less than well considered. Early in his term, he said huge bonuses awarded to executives by companies that had taken bailout money were "shameful" and "the height of irresponsibility."
But when his words helped fuel a congressional effort that almost resulted in legislation banning bonuses, Obama quickly moved to tamp down the criticism.
In March, he drew criticism for jokingly invoking the Special Olympics in describing his bowling skills to Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show."
On Friday, Obama said he and Crowley had talked about "having a beer" at the White House with Gates. Later in the day, he called Gates and invited him to join them.
"I think the president is doing the right thing by trying to lower the temperature in this matter and trying to make sure that this leads to an opportunity for constructive dialogue," said Charles Ogletree, Gates's attorney and a friend and confidant to Obama.
Ogletree said: "I don't think that Skip drinks beer, but I think he would welcome the invitation."