Beer Summit Wasn't One for the Guinness Book

By Dana Milbank
Friday, July 31, 2009

It was to have been a cure for what ales us.

Henry Louis Gates Jr., the black Harvard professor, and James Crowley, the white cop who arrested him, were at lagerheads. President Obama's comments on the matter only made things more bitter. So the White House determined that all three men should meet at the White House on Thursday night -- for a pilsener or porter of their choice and a "teachable moment" on race relations.

News outlets were tipsy with coverage of the "Beer Summit." MSNBC went with a countdown clock to the big event showing three mugs, while CNN opted for two clinking mugs on its own countdown clock. The network had five cameras broadcasting live from the White House, used Google Earth maps to show the placement of the picnic table in the Rose Garden, and provided polling on beer drinkers' views of Obama. News stories crossed the wires with headlines such as "OBAMA-BUDLIGHT-UPDATE3."

But the big moment came out flat: The three had no agenda and no comment as they sat in the Rose Garden, inviting the cameras to shoot the scene for a few seconds from 50 feet. The result: shaky images showing the trio, joined by Vice President Biden, around a table with a mug in front of each. Any hope of projecting a casual image of some guys downing a few cold ones was ruined by the formally attired White House waiter crossing the lawn with a mug of beer on a platter. The only words audible were those of White House aides shooing cameras away with "keep moving."

In the end, the sudsy summit produced little more than the peanuts the men were served -- and the puns. The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza solicited suggestions for a name. The results: "Yes, Three Cans." "Ménage à Stella Artois." "Beerastroika." "A Thousand Points of Bud Light." And "The Audacity of Hops."

The three men declared in advance which beer they favored for cooling racial tensions. Crowley wanted a Blue Moon, Gates ordered a Red Stripe, and the president, through his spokesman, requested a Bud but then switched to a Bud Light. Bad choices all around, it turns out: The president's beer of choice was made by a Belgian conglomerate, while the professor's beer was from a British corporation. American brewers protested. A Massachusetts congressman lobbied for his home-state brew to be served, and in the end got his way when Gates switched to a Samuel Adams Light.

Biden, for his part, went with a nonalcoholic Dutch beer, Buckler. And Crowley's choice was worst of all. Blue Moon Belgian White? At a multiracial summit? At least he didn't order an Extra Pale Ale.

Had they been a bit more creative, the summiteers could have used their time in the White House beer garden to promote some small American brews. Gates could have requested a San Quentin's Breakout Stout from Marin Brewing, Crowley could have sampled an Instigator Doppelbock from Pennsylvania's Sly Fox Brewhouse. And the president clearly should have chosen Ale to the Chief from Colorado's Avery Brewing.

But it's not too late for Obama to use his -- and the media's -- new interest in beer diplomacy to solve other problems.

For example, he could call in some of his foes in Congress for a round. Sen. John Ensign would be served Horny Devil, a California brew.

Sen. Jim DeMint, leading the anti-Obama movement in Congress, should be offered a British beer called "Pitchfork Rebellious Bitter," which he could quaff with the hot-tempered White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who would be offered Nebraska's Permanently Pissed Off Pilsner.

The "birthers" who demand that Obama release his birth certificate could instead be given a frosty mug of Conspiracy beer. And if a certain former Alaska governor tries to challenge Obama in 2012, he can pour her an Arctic Devil Barley Wine.

Obama had initially invited Crowley over for a beer to make up for saying the police had acted "stupidly" in arresting an unruly Gates after he broke into his own home in Cambridge, Mass. But he didn't calculate just how intoxicated the media would be with the idea.

Recognizing too late that he had set off a media Oktoberfest, Obama tried to calm things down Thursday afternoon. "I'm, I have to say, fascinated with the fascination about this evening," he said. "I noticed this has been called the beer summit. It's a clever term, but this is not a summit, guys; this is three folks having a drink."

In the briefing room on Thursday, Gibbs was asked what "you hope you will have accomplished" by the overcovered gathering.

"No more questions about what kind of beer they're going to drink," Gibbs replied.

After his drinking buddies had departed, Obama released the kind of statement typically seen after a world leader's visit, praising his interlocutors for the discussions they'd had "even before we sat down for the beer."

Crowley was more descriptive in a news conference later. Nobody apologized for the incident, and "you had two gentlemen agree to disagree," he said.

Did Obama contribute to the discussion? "He provided the beer," the sergeant quipped.

Will the professor and the cop meet in a bar for a second beer? "I think meeting in a bar for a beer on a second occasion is going to send off the wrong message," he reasoned. "So maybe a Kool-Aid or an iced tea or something like that."

After their first draught of beer summitry, folks at the White House are probably thinking the same thing.

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