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Obama parries, and critics pounce

GOP, police officials decry his critique

By Joseph Williams
Globe Staff / July 24, 2009

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WASHINGTON - President Obama yesterday stood by his criticism that Cambridge police “acted stupidly’’ when they arrested Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. after responding to a burglary report at Gates’s home, saying that he was “surprised by the controversy’’ it has stoked.

“I think it was a pretty straightforward commentary that you probably don’t need to handcuff a guy, a middle-aged man who uses a cane, who is in his own home,’’ he said in an interview that aired last night on ABC’s “Nightline.’’

Despite his “extraordinary respect’’ for police work, the president told ABC News, “my suspicion is that words were exchanged between the police officer and Mr. Gates’’ and anger got the best of them. Obama said he understands that Sergeant James M. Crowley, the white Cambridge police officer who arrested Gates, is an “outstanding’’ officer, but ultimately “it doesn’t make sense to arrest a guy in his own home if he’s not causing a serious disturbance.’’

Earlier yesterday, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said that while the president did not regret the remark, he wanted to clarify that Obama did not insult Crowley. “Let me be clear, he was not calling the officer stupid,’’ Gibbs told reporters as Obama landed in Cleveland for two healthcare events.

Gibbs also said Obama has not spoken with Gates since the African-American professor was charged last Thursday with disorderly conduct after police say he was loud and abusive. A lawyer for Gates said the Harvard scholar was surprised that Obama commented on the case.

Obama was asked about it in the last question of his hourlong nationally televised press conference Wednesday night.

“Now, I don’t know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played. . . . But I think it’s fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home; and, number three, what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there’s a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately,’’ the president said. “That’s just a fact.’’

Though Obama used the matter to make a point on race, Republicans seized on the controversy to bludgeon Obama and try to score political points against Massachusetts Democrats - including Senator John F. Kerry and Representative Michael Capuano, whose district includes Cambridge.

The National Republican Congressional Committee yesterday called the president’s critique “a bold accusation’’ and questioned whether Capuano would “follow suit’’ and whether he believed the comments were “becoming of someone who holds the highest office in the land.’’

The National Republican Senatorial Committee, the vehicle for GOP senators’ campaigns, asked whether Kerry would bow to the White House and whether he thought it “appropriate for our nation’s commander in chief to stand before a national audience and criticize the men and women in law enforcement who put their lives on the line every day.’’

Political observers, meanwhile, were scratching their heads yesterday on why Obama, who normally chooses his words carefully, would speak out forcefully in a way that could anger law enforcement across the country.

Cambridge Police Commissioner Robert Haas said yesterday that his department was “deeply pained’’ and his officers “very much deflated’’ by Obama’s remark. “It deeply hurts the pride of this agency,’’ he said at a news conference, where he defended Crowley’s actions.

Some also wondered why the nation’s first black president, who ran a campaign that attempted to blunt race as an issue, addressed race so directly on a national platform.

Mary Frances Berry, a University of Pennsylvania professor and former chairwoman of the US Commission on Civil Rights, said it was out of character for Obama and suggested he spoke out because he graduated from Harvard Law School and knows Gates well.

“His immediate reaction to it was emotional, and he seemed to be relating to his own experience,’’ she said. “His advisers probably wish he hadn’t said anything because he stepped on his message’’ of healthcare reform.