Was President Obama's Suds Summit Successful?

They didn't apologize but Crowley, Gates say they're moving forward.

July 31, 2009— -- It was a unique cocktail hour at the White House. Four men getting together for a cold beer to discuss the scorching issue of race and police-minority relations.

But beyond the photo-op, President Obama hoped to accomplish what he called a "teachable moment" for the country and dial back the controversy that has exploded from a local issue into a national debate.

In Obama's 40-minute meeting with Cambridge, Mass., Police Sgt. James Crowley and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., there were no apologies, or the appearance of a reconciliation, but the two men agreed to continue their conversation.

"We have all agreed that it is important to look forward rather than backward," Crowley said at a news conference at the AFL-CIO's national headquarters after the suds summit.

"What you had today was two gentlemen [who] agreed to disagree on a particular issue," said the police officer. "I don't think we spent too much time dwelling on the past. We spent a lot of time talking about the future."

On June 16, Crowley arrested Gates for disorderly conduct after a confrontation at Gates' home resulting from a 911 call reporting an alleged break-in. The resulting war of words escalated July 22 when Obama said the Cambridge police acted "stupidly."

The Harvard scholar, who before the meeting said he wants an apology from Crowley, wrote in his blog posting on The Root.com, the Web site for which he serves as editor-in-chief, that itt is "incumbent upon Sgt. 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."

The president, praised by both men for bringing them together, hailed the conversation as "friendly" and "thoughtful."

"I have always believed that what brings us together is stronger than what pulls us apart," Obama said. "I am confident that has happened here tonight, and I am hopeful that all of us are able to draw this positive lesson from this episode."

Obama said he learned before the sit-down over beers that Gates and Crowley had already had their own private conservation, which he called "a testament to them."

Even though the meeting may have been kept away from media scrutiny, some experts say the president's attempt was successful.

"I believe President Obama set the right tone," said ABC political contributor Donna Brazile. "He gives us now a model for which we can gather around tables to have discussions. ... Broader discussion on how we can improve relations between minority communities and police."

In writing about the White House visit in the Daily Beast, Elizabeth Gates continued her father's initial accusation that he was arrested for no reason and Crowley falsified a police report. She said of the Crowleys that "this wasn't a family raised on hate" and said her father broke the ice with Crowley by extending his hand and saying "You looked bigger the last time I saw you."

Awkward Start?

The meeting, though, started off slightly awkwardly.

Gates told The New York Times that nobody knew what to do when they first met at the White House library, accompanied by their families, who were given a tour of the president's residence.

"So I walked over, stuck out my hand and said, 'It's a pleasure to meet you.' That broke the awkwardness," Gates said.

"We hit it off right from the beginning. When he's not arresting you, Sgt. Crowley is a really likable guy," Gates added.

Crowley told ABC's Boston affiliate WCVB that the fact that Gates made the first move by introducing his family "shows a lot of character." The police officer said that the president was "engaging" and "he didn't dominate the discussion."

Gates and Crowley seemingly did most of the talking in the evening meeting that took place on the picnic bench of the White House. The president and Vice President Joe Biden -- who Obama invited informally Thursday afternoon -- made their best effort to create a casual, friendly atmosphere aided by beer, pretzels and peanuts.

None of the parties at the table revealed specifics of the discussion, with Crowley saying that it was "a private discussion, it was a frank discussion."

"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," Gates said.

Gates was the only one who drank a fully American beer, opting for a Sam Adams light. Obama drank Bud Lite, made by a Belgian company, Biden had nonalcoholic Buckler, brewed by Dutch Heineken, and Crowley chose Blue Moon, from Canadian Molson.

Gates' and Crowley's families arrived separately at the White House at different times but met up, as both groups were taking tours of the president's residence before the beer meeting. The Gateses and Crowleys continued their tours together, which Crowley called "a start."

When asked whether the president should have said the Cambridge police acted "stupidly" in arresting Gates -- comments that Obama since then has said he could have calibrated differently -- Crowley told WCVB, "I am not in a position to tell the president of United States he misspoke. Hopefully, he's like the rest of us who continuously analyze what they've done."

There is no date set yet for when the two men embroiled at the center of a national debate on race will meet again. But Crowley did suggest that this time it would be in private and maybe without beer -- Kool Aid or iced tea, he said.

For the president, as he had hoped, this story may now be over. But he has much bigger fish to fry. With health care stalling in Congress and his public support dropping, it may take a lot more than beer for the White House to deal with these issues.