July 30, 2009— -- On a hot summer night, President Obama sat down for cold beers in the Rose Garden of the White House with the two men at the center of a recent uproar over racial profiling.
Obama and Vice President Joe Biden shared a drink and some snacks with Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley and Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Two weeks ago, Crowley arrested Gates after a confrontation at Gates' home. The resulting war of words escalated July 22 when Obama said the police acted "stupidly."
Obama hoped that tonight's meeting would dial back the controversy and create what he called a "teachable moment."
The media was kept about 30 feet away from the table where the four men sat with their beers in frosty mugs and snacked on pretzels and peanuts.
After the meeting, the White House released a statement from the president, who thanked Gates and Crowley for coming to the White House for "a friendly, thoughtful conversation."
Obama said he learned before the sit-down over beers that Gates and Crowley already had their own private conservation, which he called "a testament to them."
"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."
Crowley told reporters there were no apologies offered at the meeting, but that he and Gates already have planned a follow up meeting to continue the conversation.
"I think what you had today was two gentlemen [who] agree to disagree on a particular issue," Crowley said. "I don't think we spent too much time dwelling on the past. We spent a lot of time discussing the future."
Crowley did not offer any specifics on what was said at the table in the Rose Garden.
"It was a private discussion, it was a frank discussion," he said.
Gates said in a statement on theroot.com that after tonight's meeting, "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.
"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.
Tonight's beer choices? Obama had Bud Lite, Biden had non-alcoholic Buckler, Gates went for Samuel Adams Lite and Crowley chose Blue Moon.
Before sitting down in the Rose Garden, Obama met with Gates and Crowley in the Oval Office.
It's just about "three folks having a drink at the end of the day and hopefully giving people an opportunity to listen to each other," the president told reporters this afternoon.
"This is not a university seminar; it is not a summit," Obama said of the get-together, as he sat next to Philippines' President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. "It's an attempt to have some personal interaction when an issue has become so hyped and so symbolic that you lose sight of just the fact that these are people involved, including myself, all of whom are imperfect."
The president added that "hopefully instead of ginning up anger and hyperbole, you know, everybody can just spend a little bit of time with some self-reflection and recognizing that everybody has different points of view."
The White House billed the event as just a couple of guys sitting down for a beer.
"There is no formal agenda, there is no legislative agenda," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said, adding that the sit-down is "not an after-action report," and he did not expect they will go over the details of what happened at Gates' house.
"To get together and talk about what's going on in this country is a positive thing, even if you're not able to hear each and every word of it," Gibbs told reporters. "I think that kind of dialogue is what has to happen at every level of ... our society if we're going to make progress on issues that ... we've been dealing with for quite some time."
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."
So would the beer fest steer the conversation in the direction the president is hoping for?
"It's a teachable moment if it's larger than the cop and the professor," said Paul Butler, former federal prosecutor and law professor at George Washington University. "The president isn't some civilian dispute mediator. He's got the biggest soapbox in the world and he's an African American man whose been [racially] profiled himself, so if he doesn't cave in to the politics and doesn't like he took back his comment about the police -- if he keeps it real, there's the opportunity for real change."
The president last Friday said he helped "contribute to ratcheting" up the media frenzy surrounding the Gates arrest.
"I could have calibrated those words differently, and I told this to Sgt. Crowley," the president told reporters Friday.
An Apology on the Way?
The seemingly heart-to-heart session has been the butt of many a late-night joke, but underneath the humor simmers a real controversy.
Gates has repeatedly demanded an apology from the officer.
Crowley is sticking by his claim that he was just doing his job and that Gates was loud and hurled allegations of racism when police arrived at his house in response to a 911 call reporting a possible break-in.
A spokesman for Crowley said, "It is his understanding that they are all going to agree to disagree" at the suds summit tonight.
"I think that he is probably trying to protect himself," Gates said of Crowley in an interview with Gayle King on Sirius Radio. "I think he feels very vulnerable. I think he knows that A, what he did was wrong and B, that he falsified his report."
That's a reference to Crowley writing in his report that Lucia Whalen, the 911 caller, "went on to tell me that she observed what appeared to be two black males with backpacks on the porch of Ware Street. She told me that her suspicions were aroused when she observed one of the men wedging his shoulder into the door as if he was trying to force entry."
But Whalen denied she ever mentioned race in her conversation with the police.
On her 911 call, Whalen didn't mention the race of the men whom she said might be residents of the house, though when asked, she said she thought one man looked "kind of Hispanic" but she couldn't tell.
"I hope people can see that I tried to be careful and honest with my words," Whalen said at a press conference Wednesday. "It never occurred to me that the way I reported what I saw be analyzed in an entire nation."
Whalen's attorney, Wendy Murphy, said her client "didn't speak to Sgt. Crowley at the scene except to say, 'I'm the one who called.' And he said, 'Wait right there,' and walked into the house. She never used the word black and never said the word backpacks to anyone."
The president was aiming to defuse the controversy caused by his remarks last week that the Cambridge police acted "stupidly" in arresting Gates. He's backtracked since then, saying that he could have framed his words differently but has stuck by his claim that his friend Gates should never have been arrested, though he's suggested both men are at fault.
Obama called both men last Friday, which is when Crowley suggested they hoist a cold one together.
Some, such as former Secretary of State Colin Powell, have said Gates should have showed more restraint and been more careful with his words. But some point the finger at Crowley for being too hasty in his arrest.
"Professor Gates should've been nicer but it's not against the law to say bad things to the police. Police hear much worse things," Butler, who authored a book about race and the justice system, told ABC News. "The concern is that when the police were messing with a 58-year-old man with a cane, they weren't out catching the real bad guys and ultimately that's the problem with racial profiling. It doesn't help the police do their job effectively.
"It's not about kum-ba-ya," he said.
And yet some others echo the president's comments that cooler heads should have prevailed on both sides.
"My guess is that they both think that they might have reacted, perhaps, a little differently and this situation might have... been avoided," Eric Holder, the country's first African American attorney general, told ABC News' Pierre Thomas on Wednesday. "Sometimes people need to take a deep breath."
Meanwhile, the fallout from the incident continues. The Boston Police Department this week suspended one officer after he wrote a racist e-mail about Gates, calling the Harvard professor a "jungle monkey." And in New York, an aide for Democratic Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer resigned after she called Gates a racist and Obama as "O-dumb-a" on Facebook.