WASHINGTON President Obama tried yesterday to defuse a volatile debate over the arrest of a black Harvard University professor as he admitted that his own comments had inflamed tensions and insisted he did not mean to malign the arresting officer.
Mr. Obama placed calls to both the professor, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and the man who arrested him, Sgt. James Crowley of the Cambridge, Mass., Police Department. Two days after saying officers had acted stupidly in hauling Mr. Gates from his home in handcuffs, Mr. Obama said he still considered the arrest an overreaction, but added that Professor Gates probably overreacted as well.
This has been ratcheting up, and I obviously helped to contribute ratcheting it up, Mr. Obama said of the controversy. I want to make clear that in my choice of words, I think I unfortunately gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge Police Department and Sergeant Crowley specifically. And I could ve calibrated those words differently.
Mr. Obama s unusual personal intervention and public statement were made just four hours after the White House said he had no more to say on the matter. But after talking with First Lady Michelle Obama and some of his closest friends amid unrelenting media attention, his friends and advisers said, Mr. Obama reversed course in hopes of quashing a dispute that had set off strong reactions and had made it harder for the White House to focus public attention on his efforts to pass health-care legislation.
The Gates case has become the first significant racial controversy Mr. Obama has confronted since he was sworn in as the nation s first black president.
Whether Mr. Obama succeeded in tamping down the emotions of the case remained to be seen. During their phone conversation, Mr. Obama said, Sergeant Crowley suggested that he and Mr. Gates come to the White House to share a beer with the President. Mr. Obama then conveyed that idea in his phone call with Mr. Gates.
Mr. Gates said in an e-mail message afterward that he was pleased to accept his invitation to come to the White House and meet Sergeant Crowley. After all, I first made the offer to meet with Sgt. Crowley myself, last Monday, Mr. Gates wrote. I told the President that my entire career as an educator has been devoted to racial healing and improved race relations in this country. I am determined that this be a teaching moment for America.
Sergeant Crowley made no public comments after his conversation with Mr. Obama. He has denied doing anything wrong and has declined to apologize to Mr. Gates.
There were signs both that Mr. Obama s statement had helped to ease tensions and that his critics were not about to let that be the end of it: A trio of Massachusetts police organizations issued a statement thanking the President for his willingness to reconsider his remarks. The statement said Sergeant Crowley was profoundly grateful Mr. Obama was trying to resolve the situation. But a Republican congressman from Michigan, Thaddeus McCotter, said he would introduce a House resolution calling on Mr. Obama to apologize to Sergeant Crowley.
Mr. Obama said his conversation with Sergeant Crowley confirmed his belief that the sergeant is an outstanding police officer and a good man.
The episode stemmed from a misunderstanding when Mr. Gates returned from a trip to his home in Cambridge on July 16 and found his door stuck. A passer-by reported seeing someone trying to break into the house and police responded. Although the arresting police officer became aware that Mr. Gates was in his own home, the police said the professor was belligerent and arrested him for disorderly conduct. The charge was later dropped.
Yesterday at a news conference in Cambridge police union members suggested it was Mr. Gates who made it a racial incident and calling on Mr. Obama to apologize for demeaning Sergeant Crowley.
The facts of this case suggest that the President used the right adjective but directed it to the wrong party, Sgt. Dennis O Connor, president of the Cambridge Police Superior Officers Association, said.
Sgt. Leon Lashley, a black officer at the Gates house that day, told the Associated Press that he supported Sergeant Crowley s actions 100 percent.
Mr. Obama defended his decision to weigh in. 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, he said. 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.
Mr. Obama added that the incident was a reminder that because of the difficulties of the past, you know, African-Americans are sensitive to these issues.