WASHINGTON -- President Obama played down his meeting Thursday with an African-American professor and the white police officer who arrested him, telling reporters he has been surprised by the hype surrounding the event.
"It's not a summit," Obama said of his impending meeting with Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates and Cambridge, Mass., police Sgt. James Crowley.
The news media dubbed the early-evening tête-à-tête a "beer summit" because the men gathered for a chat over beers.
During an afternoon meeting with President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo of the Philippines, Obama said he was "fascinated with the fascination about this evening."
Last week, the president said he would like to turn tensions over Gates' arrest, which occurred after police responded to a call about a possible burglary at the scholar's home, into a "teachable moment" on race.
Since then, the president and his aides have tried to tamp down expectations about the meeting, which took place on White House grounds at 6 p.m. ET.
Obama cast the meeting as an opportunity for the men to listen to each other. "This is not a university seminar," he said.
Earlier Thursday, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said, "I don't think the president has outsized expectations that one cold beer at one table here is going to change massively the course of human history."
He said Obama hopes instead to inspire discussions "in communities large and small all over the country in order to make progress through better understanding."
Gates' arrest this month, after he had to force his way into his house because the door was jammed, prompted a national discussion on cable TV networks, in the White House and elsewhere about racial profiling.
At a news conference July 22, Obama inflamed the discussion when he said the Cambridge police "acted stupidly" when they arrested Gates. Two days later, Obama told reporters he wished he had "calibrated" his words differently and did not mean to malign the police. Obama said he believed Gates and Crowley had "overreacted" to events.
Obama said he hoped the arrest and ensuing discussions could be a "teachable moment" for the country, and he announced that Gates and Crowley would join him for a beer.
The White House said Obama would drink a Bud Light. Gates and Crowley have indicated a preference for Red Stripe and Blue Moon, respectively. Gibbs said "there will be a selection of beers," and it will "include at least those three."
Gibbs said the event was not about having the men apologize. "We're not here to mediate apologies," he said.
David Bositis of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank that does research on blacks, said there's no way to make the meeting a "teachable moment" on race.
"There are no lessons on race that are taught at a national level," he said, those lessons are taught in one-on-one interactions.
Bositis said Obama should have avoided the question about Gates' arrest. "A lot of the fault (about the hype) is Obama's," he said. "He knew that all his focus had to be devoted to health care. He probably should have just passed on the question."
He said he wasn't surprised Obama invited the men for a beer. "Obama tends to be conciliatory as a person," Bositis said.