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Over beers, a taste of what’s to come

Gates, Crowley vow to meet again

Sergeant James Crowley (second from right) spoke with professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. (second from left) as they had a beer with Vice President Joe Biden and President Obama. Sergeant James Crowley (second from right) spoke with professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. (second from left) as they had a beer with Vice President Joe Biden and President Obama. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
By Joseph Williams
Globe Staff / July 31, 2009

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WASHINGTON - They did not link arms, and there were no public apologies. But a subdued meeting over beers on the White House patio last evening appeared to achieve President Obama’s goal of encouraging a deeper dialogue on race between Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cambridge police Sergeant James Crowley.

The White House, which carefully choreographed the event, kept reporters out and would not disclose what was said after the unlikely trio, joined by Vice President Joe Biden, sipped their cold ones. But after the images of a peaceful dialogue were beamed live on television, Crowley said he and Gates had agreed to meet again and will continue discussing their differences.

“Two gentlemen agreed to disagree,’’ Crowley told reporters at AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington after he left the White House. “This was a positive step in moving forward,’’ he said, not only for Cambridge, but the nation.

The meeting - convened by Obama - was an important icebreaker between two men whose confrontation two weeks ago blew up into a national debate on race, police power, and liberal elites. Accompanied by members of their families, Crowley and Gates began their visit with a tour of the White House; their separate groups met midway through the tour and joined as one large group for the remainder. “And that was the start,’’ said Crowley. “It was very cordial.’’

In a statement last night on theroot.com, Gates applauded Obama for arranging the meeting and described his initial encounter with Crowley as “an accident of time and place.’’

“It is incumbent upon Sergeant Crowley and me to utilize the great opportunity that fate has given us to foster greater sympathy among the American public for the daily perils of policing on the one hand, and for the genuine fears of racial profiling on the other hand,’’ he said.

Gates said he has come to understand and appreciate the daily sacrifices police officers make on our behalf. “I’m also grateful that we live in a country where freedom of speech is a sacrosanct value, and I hope that one day we can get to know each other better, as we began to do at the White House this afternoon.

“At this point, I am hopeful that we can all move on, and that this experience will prove an occasion for education, not recrimination.’’

Scholars said the meeting was apparently an unprecedented intervention in a local dispute by a sitting US president, part of the White House damage control after Obama said in a press conference last week that Cambridge police, responding to a report of a possible break-in, “acted stupidly’’ by arresting Gates at his home.

A survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press showed that two-thirds of those questioned disapproved of the way the president handled the incident.

Though other factors also dragged down his ratings - including anxiety about the economy, his healthcare overhaul, and the spiraling deficit - the poll indicated that the president’s approval ratings among whites slipped from 53 percent late last week to 46 percent early this week.

Obama’s remarks touched off a firestorm of criticism that threatened to overshadow his message on healthcare and other key agenda items. He later called Crowley to clarify his remarks and invited him and Gates for a drink at his place in Washington.

The president and his aides tried to lower expectations in the hours before the highly anticipated White House get-together.

“This is not a summit,’’ Obama said shortly before the meeting. “This is three folks having a drink at the end of the day and hopefully giving people an opportunity to listen to each other.

“It’s an attempt to have some personal interaction when an issue has become so hyped and so symbolic that you lose sight of the fact that there are people involved, including myself, all of whom are imperfect,’’ he said.

But the media attention was intense. Cable TV news shows ran countdown clocks to the meeting and dispatched live trucks and extra reporters to the White House.

The episode was the most significant racial controversy to engulf the nation’s first black president six months into his first term, and it forced the White House to resort to damage control.

Gates, returning home from an overseas trip July 16, had help forcing open a jammed front door, but a woman who works nearby saw them and called 911.

Although Gates showed police identification proving he wasn’t an intruder, he and Crowley had a confrontation, and Crowley arrested him for disorderly conduct.

The charges were dropped, but Gates - an influential scholar on race in America - accused Cambridge police of racial profiling and angrily demanded an apology. Cambridge police said Crowley did nothing wrong, because Gates was loud and abusive.

After criticizing Crowley on national television, Obama’s public approval ratings quickly slipped.

“The impression is they think he really shouldn’t have injected himself in this thing in the first place,’’ according to Michael Dimock of the Pew Research Center.

It’s highly unusual, if not unprecedented, for a president to become personally involved in a local dispute, according to Gil Troy, a scholar on the American presidency at McGill University in Toronto.

President Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to the White House to discuss race in 1901 and personally talked to both sides to resolve a miner’s strike a year later, but “I cannot think of a president intervening in what really was a very personal dispute between two individuals,’’ Troy said in an e-mail interview.

Obama’s decision to weigh in on Gates’s arrest “was striking enough, [and] to take that next step is quite extraordinary - but is a clever way of moving beyond the discomfort some have with the chief executive officer of the United States criticizing the Cambridge police.’’

David Abel of the Globe staff, reporting from Boston, contributed to this report.

Correction: Because of reporting errors, this story misstated poll results on Obama’s handling of the controversy surrounding Gates’s arrest. The survey by the Pew Research Center on the People & the Press found that 29 percent approved of how Obama handled the situation, 41 percent disapproved, and 30 percent did not know. The story also incorrectly identified the location of McGill University, which is in Montreal.