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Published: Friday, 7/31/2009

Obama s beer diplomacy helps talk on racial issues

NEW YORK TIMES

WASHINGTON They came, they met, they drank. They did not apologize.

The much-anticipated beer summit of President Obama, Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Sgt. James Crowley of the Cambridge Police Department in Massachusetts took place last night, accompanied by minute-by-minute reporting from the White House press corps, countdown clocks from the cable news networks, and a last-minute addition of Vice President Joe Biden.

After 10 days of near nonstop media coverage of a case that launched a thousand news stories about race, the protagonists sat down for less than an hour at a table across from the Oval Office.

What you had today was two gentlemen who agreed to disagree on a particular issue, a poised and smooth Mr. Crowley said after the session. We didn t spend too much time dwelling on the past, and we decided to look forward.

Mr. Gates said in an interview, I don t think anybody but Barack Obama would have thought about bringing us together.

The policeman and the professor both expressed respect for each other after their dispute that unleashed a furor over racial profiling in America.

For his part, Mr. Gates said he and Sergeant Crowley were caught up as characters in a larger narrative about race over which they had no control.

It is incumbent upon Sergeant Crowley and me to utilize the great opportunity that fate has given us, Mr. Gates said in a statement.

He said their task must be to foster sympathy among Americans about the daily perils of policing on the one hand, and for the genuine fears of racial profiling on the other hand.

The two men and their families, who had accompanied them to the White House, first encountered each other in the White House library while each group was on individual tours yesterday afternoon.

Nobody knew what to do, Mr. Gates said. So I walked over, stuck out my hand and said, It s a pleasure to meet you. That broke the awkwardness.

Sergeant Crowley added that the families had continued the tour as a group. He described the interaction as very cordial.

Mr. Gates concurred, saying: We hit it off right from the beginning. When he s not arresting you, Sergeant Crowley is a really likable guy.

By the time the two men began their meeting with Mr. Obama, they could already report progress and told the President that they had made plans to have lunch together soon.

I am thankful to Professor Gates and Sergeant Crowley for joining me at the White House this evening for a friendly, thoughtful conversation, Mr. Obama said in a statement. Even before we sat down for the beer, I learned that the two gentlemen spent some time together listening to one another, which is a testament to them.

The addition of Mr. Biden was interesting, for a number of reasons. Mr. Biden was able to draw on his credibility with blue-collar, labor union America and his roots in Scranton, Pa., to add balance to the photo op that the White House presented: two black guys, two white guys, sitting around a table.

Earlier in the day, Mr. Obama had razzed reporters for obsessing on the theatrics of the meeting, saying he was fascinated with the fascination over the issue, which has been boiling since Sergeant Crowley, responding to a call about a possible break-in, arrested Mr. Gates for disorderly conduct even though he had ascertained that Mr. Gates was in his own home.

Mr. Obama added fuel to the fire a week later when he said in response to a question at a news conference that the Cambridge police had acted stupidly in arresting Mr. Gates, a word choice that he later said he regretted.

The media were only allowed a peek at the gathering for about 40 seconds and from a distance so great that reporters could not hear a word that was said.

Nonetheless, some details emerged:

Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden were in shirtsleeves, Sergeant Crowley and Mr. Gates wore suits.

The four drank out of beer mugs. Mr. Obama had a Bud Lite, Sergeant Crowley had Blue Moon, Mr. Gates drank Sam Adams Light and Mr. Biden, who does not drink, had a Buckler nonalcoholic beer.

Mr. Gates had originally ordered a Red Stripe, but switched to a Massachussets-brewed beer after a congressman from that state pointed out that all the beers the men had ordered were brewed by overseas companies. Budweiser is owned by a Belgian conglomerate.

The four men ate peanuts and pretzels out of small silver bowls.

In the end, the sudsy summit produced little more than the peanuts the men were served and the puns. The Washington Post s Chris Cillizza solicited suggestions for a name. The results: Yes, Three Cans. Menage a Stella Artois. Beerastroika. A Thousand Points of Bud Light. And The Audacity of Hops.



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