Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. said this evening that he would accept President Obama's invitation to meet with him and Cambridge Police Sergeant James M. Crowley at the White House.
Gates said in an email to the Globe that he was pleased to talk to the president today and to be asked to meet with Crowley, adding, "I said I would."
"My entire academic career had been based on improving race relations, not exacerbating them. I am hopeful that my experience will lead to greater sensitivity to issues of racial profiling in the criminal justice system. If so, then this will be a blessing for our society. It is time for all of us to move on, and to assess what we can learn from this experience," he said.
Obama extended the invitation today in phone calls to the two men as he sought to calm a national debate over racial profiling that reached a fever pitch after news broke of the white officer's arrest of the black scholar at his home last week.
Sergeant James M. Crowley
Crowley and the president discussed "he and I and professor Gates having a beer here in the White House," Obama said in a White House news conference. "We don't know if that's scheduled yet -- but we may put that together." The White House issued a statement later, noting that Obama had also called Gates.
Crowley couldn't be reached for comment. But Cambridge and area police unions released a statement on his behalf saying that Crowley and the president had a "friendly and meaningful conversation" and that Crowley was "profoundly grateful that the President took time out of his busy schedule to attempt to resolve this situation." The statement didn't say if Crowley had accepted the president's invitation.
A fellow officer said Crowley had told Obama he would attend the meeting. "Jimmy said, 'I'd be happy to come to the White House and sit down with you and Gates and have a beer,' " the veteran Cambridge officer said, who asked not to be identified because he is not authorized to speak publicly about the issue. "The president said he was acceptable to that."
At the news conference, a surprise appearance in the White House briefing room, Obama also expressed regret for his choice of words when he said earlier this week that police "acted stupidly" in the arrest, noting that he had inadvertently ratcheted up the media frenzy over the case.
"I want to make clear that in my choice of words I unfortunately gave the impression that I was maligning the Cambridge Police Department and Sergeant Crowley, specifically. I could have calibrated those words differently," Obama said. "I told this to Sergeant Crowley. I continue to believe that there was an overreaction in pulling professor Gates out of his home and to the station. I also continue to believe, based on what I've heard, that Professor Gates overreacted as well."
The statement by the unions thanked Obama for "his sincere interest and willingness to reconsider his remarks."
The five-minute phone conversation between Obama and Crowley took place at about 2:15 p.m., two hours after police unions held a news conference at a hotel in Cambridge asking the president to apologize for his words. In recounting the exchange for the media, the president did not use the words "apology" or "sorry," but he made it clear he regretted fanning the flames of an already explosive story.
"My hope is that as a consequence of this event, this ends up being what's called a teachable moment," Obama said. "Where all of us -- instead of pumping up the volume -- spend a little more time listening to each other and trying to focus on how we can generally improve relations between police officers and minority communities. That instead of flinging accusations, we can all be a little more reflective about what we can do to contribute to more unity.
"Lord knows, we need it right now."
The invitations to the White House were the latest twist in a bizarre series of events that began on July 16 at Gates's home near Harvard Square.
Crowley arrested Gates, a leading expert on African-American history, after police were called to a report of a break-in at the Ware Street home. Gates had just arrived home from the filming of a PBS documentary in China. His front door was stuck shut, and his taxi driver helped him pry it open.
According to a police report, a woman had called to report two black men trying to force their way into a house. Crowley said in the report that Gates became disruptive and was arrested for disorderly conduct. Gates has denied that he was disorderly.
The charge was dropped, but the story gained momentum this week as Gates demanded an apology and Crowley refused to give one -- and Obama jumped into the fray.
Supporters of both men said Obama's calls were welcome. Harvard law professor Charles J. Ogletree Jr., one of Gates's lawyers, praised the president, a former student of his.
"I think the president has taken the right approach by trying to make sure we move forward," said Ogletree. "He's always had the ability to negotiate difficult conversations, and his steps today are an important step in the right direction. I think the president has given his assessment, which makes a lot of sense, and, however you feel about it, it has reduced the temperature and allowed everyone to move forward in a constructive way."
By the end of Obama's briefing this afternoon, he took on a lighter tone, urging the press to leave Crowley's home in Natick and "stop trampling his grass."
Obama also noted that he had a political motivation to tamp down the rhetoric over Gates's arrest.
"Over the last two days, as we've discussed this issue, I don't know if you've noticed, but nobody has been paying much attention to healthcare," Obama said, eliciting laughter from the press corps.
Tracy Jan, Jonathan Saltzman, Brian MacQuarrie, David Abel, and Martin Finucane of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.
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