I’m going to go out on a limb here and argue that President Obama’s handling of the Gates arrest/Beer Summit was both klutzsy and deft. OK, a very little limb.
Klutzsy because the President’s comment that the police acted “stupidly,” however true, was politically-unwise in that he forgot for a moment that he is also the nation’s top law enforcement officer, as well as the commander in chief of the armed forces. And a commander does not diss his troops prior to a thorough investigation of the facts. Then there is the cold reality that a large percentage of Americans, probably not only “cultural conservatives,” are always going to side with the police, absent video footage indicating that they were abusive. At least one survey, though conducted just after his press conference, indicated that white respondents gave Obama low marks for his handling of the incident.
Obama’s uncharacteristicly knee-jerk comment was a mistake, forgetting for the moment that what he said was likely accurate. Good leadership does not require immediately saying something because you believe it’s true. Obama’s imprudent comment turned the incident into a huge distraction that sucked a lot of ink and broadcast coverage from the more urgent health care battle. Very important to learn the lesson here.
That said, the “Beer Summit’ was a brilliant idea. The President realized he made a mistake, quickly owned up to it, and then came up with an idea that demonstrated how grown-ups can resolve conflicts, even racial conflicts, in a way that resonates with middle class, and particularly working class Americans. Teaching by example is good leadership. It doesn’t preach; it just shows a better way.
I like the way Baltimore bartender Zach Yarosz put it in Brent Jones’s Sun article,
After working for years in several Baltimore bars, Yarosz has many times dished out alcohol to hotheads on the verge of trading punches when an argument turns personal…”They calm down if you buy each one of them a drink. It placates the situation,” said Yarosz, 27, as he sat in the Mount Royal Tavern in Bolton Hill, downing Budweisers with about 15 others as Obama prepared to host a “beer summit”…”I like the laid-back approach…”
Yes, I know, the Beer Summit looked a bit stiff and stagy. It was not a well-choreographed photo-op. And you couldn’t blame Dr. Gates for still being pissed off. But to his credit he showed with a positive spirit. Sgt. Crowley also gets creds for showing up and being positive, if not for learning the lesson that good police work does not include bullying people in their homes. Not sure what the veep was doing there — Obama might have looked more “in-charge” without him. But the President actually looked more relaxed than all of them, very FDR.
It could have been worse, the President could have done nothing, or said something lame, and his comments would then fester on indefinitely throughout the health care reform debate. The Beer Summit brought a little closure, at least as far as the President’s role in the incident is concerned.
There wasn’t going to be a Kumbaya moment, although Gates and Crowley have agreed to meet again. But the President has demonstrated a simple truth to the nation. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “We have to be together, before we can learn to live together.” Well done.