The poll data on President Obama’s intervention in the Henry Gates matter must be very bad. Earlier today, Obama made a surprise appearance at Robert Gibbs’s press briefing for the sole purpose of addressing the controversy. Just before the briefing he called Officer James Crowley to talk about the incident–but not, apparently, to apologize for telling a national television audience that Crowley “acted stupidly” when he arrested Gates. Here are highlights of the President’s remarks:
I actually just had a conversation with Sergeant Jim Crowley, the officer involved. And I have to tell you that, as I said yesterday, my impression of him was that he was a outstanding police officer and a good man, and that was confirmed in the phone conversation. And I told him that.
And I — because this has been ratcheting up and I obviously helped to contribute ratcheting it up, I want to make clear that in my choice of words, I think, I unfortunately, I think, gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge police department or Sergeant Crowley specifically.
This is classic Obama: he didn’t “unfortunately” “give an impression” that he was maligning Crowley, he maligned him by saying that Crowley “acted stupidly.” And he evidently didn’t apologize to Crowley for doing so.
And I could have calibrated those words differently. And I told this to Sergeant Crowley.
The problem, however, isn’t with how Obama “calibrated [his] words.” The problem is that he gratuitously entered into the controversy on the side of his friend Henry Gates when he didn’t know the facts.
Next, Obama went on to draw lessons from the incident. Not, as one might have expected, the lesson that he should keep his mouth shut when he doesn’t know what he’s talking about:
The fact that it has garnered so much attention, I think, is a testimony to the fact that these are issues that are still very sensitive here in America. …
What I’d like to do then is make sure that everybody steps back for a moment, recognizes that these are two decent people, not extrapolate too much from the facts, but, as I said at the press conference, be mindful of the fact that because of our history, because of the difficulties of the past, you know, African-Americans are sensitive to these issues. 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.
My hope is is that as a consequence of this event, this ends up being what’s called a teachable moment, where all of us, instead of pumping up the volume, spend a little more time listening to each other and try to focus on how we can generally improve relations between police officers and minority communities, and that instead of flinging accusations, we can all be a little more reflective in terms of what we can do to contribute to more unity.
Does Obama understand that he himself “pump[ed] up the volume” by “flinging accusations”? I’m not sure that he does.
But I just wanted to emphasize that — one last point I’ve guess I’d make. 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 thing — that part of it, I disagree with. The fact that this has become such a big issue I think is indicative of the fact that, you know, race is still a troubling aspect of our society. 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.
Is race “still a troubling aspect of our society”? Maybe so. But what is troubling about this incident, in particular, is that the President of the United States jumped to the conclusion that a white police officer “acted stupidly” in arresting his friend and fellow African-American, and expressed that view to millions of Americans even though (as he admitted) he had little knowledge of the facts. It is hard to see how that could be “part of [his] portfolio” or how it could contribute to racial understanding.
A simple “I goofed” would have sufficed. Obama’s elaborate self-justification will only serve to extend the life of the controversy.
PAUL adds: That this has become such a big issue is indicative of the fact that hurling baseless charges of racism (as Gates did) is offensive and so is harshly criticizing police officers without knowing the facts (as Obama did). No “constructive understandings” can be gleaned from this incident until this is acknowledged.
The problem with the “teachable moment” cliche is that it begs the question of what the lesson is. Naturally, Obama wants to control the teaching on all matters racial (as well as just about all other matters) — that’s why he claims “jurisdiction.” But the real lesson from the latest “teachable moment” may be that Obama does not teach this subject in good faith.