President Obama said today that he was "surprised by the controversy surrounding" his criticism that Cambridge police "acted stupidly" when they arrested Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr.
"I think it was a pretty straight forward 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."
In an interview to air on ABC's "Nightline" tonight, Obama said it doesn't make sense to him that Gates was arrested.
"I think that I have extraordinary respect for the difficulties of the job that police officers do," the president said in the interview. "And my suspicion is that words were exchanged between the police officer and Mr. Gates and that everybody should have just settled down and cooler heads should have prevailed. That's my suspicion."
Obama also said he understands the sergeant who arrested Gates an "outstanding police officer" and repeated that, "I don't know all the details to the case." But he said that "it doesn't make sense to arrest a guy in his own home if he's not causing a serious disturbance."
Pressed on the "acted stupidly" remark, Obama called it "a classic example" of a distraction when the country is fighting two wars and the economy is in recession. "Issues like this get elevated in ways that probably don't make much sense."
UPDATE: Asked about Obama's comment, Cambridge police commissioner Robert Haas said this afternoon that "this department is deeply pained."
"It deeply hurts the pride of this agency," he told a news conference, where he defended Sergeant James Crowley as acting properly.
Earlier, the White House walked back somewhat Obama's remark.
Spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters traveling on Air Force One that Obama did not regret the remark during his primetime news conference Wednesday night, but wanted to clarify that he was not calling the arresting officer stupid.
"Let me be clear, he was not calling the officer stupid," Gibbs told reporters as Obama landed in Cleveland for two healthcare events this afternoon. He said Obama believes that "at a certain point the situation got far out of hand" at Gates' home.
Obama felt "cooler heads on all sides should have prevailed" once the officer realized Gates was in his own home, Gibbs said.
Gibbs also said that Obama has not spoken with Gates since the incident last Thursday.
(The full transcript of the questions and Gibbs's answers on the issue is below.)
Republicans are jumping on Obama's remark, and trying to use it to target Representative Michael Capuano, the Somerville Democrat who represents Cambridge.
"President Obama laid a bold accusation at Massachusetts law enforcement officers from the bully pulpit yesterday, saying they “acted stupidly” while admitting that he didn’t “know all the facts.” Now that Cambridge police have been hit with this allegation by the White House, will Michael Capuano follow suit?" the National Republican Congressional Committee asked today in a release.
"Does Michael Capuano believe President Obama’s comments were becoming of someone who holds the highest office in the land?” asked NRCC Communications Director Ken Spain in the statement.
“The president was slow to point out any wrongdoing in the wake of the Iranian election and his administration was quick to force through a failed stimulus plan even though they ‘misread’ the economy. This is certainly a questionable rush to judgment coming from a president who hasn’t exactly been quick to call out unconscionable behavior by a merciless foreign dictator or gotten his facts straight before advocating a trillion-dollar mistake to address our ailing economy. Is it really presidential for him to cast harsh judgment of a law enforcement official without all the facts? These questions warrant an answer from Michael Capuano.”
And the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the vehicle for GOP senators' campaigns, is aiming at Senator John F. Kerry of Massachuetts.
“Given the President’s strong feelings on this matter, Massachusetts constituents must wonder: what does their Senator and former Democrat presidential nominee John Kerry think about President Obama’s statement that the Cambridge Police ‘acted stupidly?’ Does John Kerry think it’s 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, when by his own admission, he doesn’t even know all the facts?” asked NRSC spokesman Brian Walsh.
Q Robert, some people thought it was a little unusual that the President waded into the matter between Professor Gates and the Cambridge police -- a little uncharacteristic of him -- when the facts are in dispute. You know, this is the sort of thing he might ordinarily say, I don't -- you know, I don't know all the facts. Why do you --
MR. GIBBS: Well, he did -- let's go through what he did say, because he did say, one, Professor Gates was a friend of his. He did say he didn't have all the facts. I think we've all read in the newspaper at least a baseline of fact that the President outlined first by saying you have an unidentified individual who jimmies open a door of a house; the police are called based on that; the police respond -- which you would expect a series of those events to transpire like that.
I think what the President ultimately talked about was, obviously there was a point at which, inside of the house, both parties involved, probably recognizing that the situation originally responded to wasn't what was actually happening, in terms of a crime being committed, and at that point -- at that point cooler heads on all sides should have prevailed. I think that's what the President was denoting in the ultimate arrest and the since dropping of those charges.
Q Why do you think he wanted to weigh in on this, though? He obviously --
MR. GIBBS: I appreciate your -- I appreciate the ability at nationally televised news conferences to pass on questions like it was a game show. But I haven't been afforded that -- I don't think the President has been afforded those possibilities before. But I will certainly pass along your suggestion.
Q But he did go so far as to say that the police behaved "stupidly."
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, I think -- again, as I just said, I think there's a point in this where it becomes clear that the situation as it was originally called in is not the current situation, right? At some point it becomes clear that the individual in the house owns the house.
And I think that's -- at that point, cooler heads likely should have prevailed on both sides.
Q Robert, does the President feel that he, ever in his life, has been a victim of racial profiling -- pulled over, questioned for no obvious reason?
MR. GIBBS: Let me check. I think there -- I think he mentions in his book an instance where that happens.
Q Has the President --
MR. GIBBS: And I know he certainly -- you know, I think he's mentioned, you know, being at the front of a restaurant where somebody hands him the keys to go get a car.
Q That's a little different from a police action to --
MR. GIBBS: Right, I don't know if he's ever felt -- let me double-check on that.
Q There was a Chicago Tribune story from 2003 that suggests that he did feel that way, but it didn't have any details --
MR. GIBBS: I recall that, and obviously -- you know, again, I think the President also touched on the fact that working with all involved -- communities, police, and all stakeholders -- on legislation to develop a series of statistics that would allow the state of Illinois to evaluate what was going on and how best to address it -- again, I think, the important thing working with all of those involved.
Q Can I just ask you to clarify one quick thing that he said last night? When he was talking about "I would get shot trying to, you know, break into the house," he was talking about the White House or was he talking about his home in Chicago?
MR. GIBBS: I assume he was talking about the White House. And as I said to him afterwards, having looked at a couple of them, the only people apparently not laughing at that joke were the Secret Service, at that point which, we were standing to one of the guys from the Secret Service, and he laughed. So I think he was --
Q He wasn't talking about Chicago or the Chicago police, is what I --
MR. GIBBS: No, no, no, I think he was talking about the White House.
Q Has the President spoken to Professor Gates at all?
MR. GIBBS: Not that I'm aware of, no.
Q Has anybody from the White House reached out to him.
MR. GIBBS: Not that I'm aware of. Not that I'm aware of.
Q And when you say that cooler heads should have prevailed on all sides, you're saying Professor Gates should have also handled it differently?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, again, I wasn't there, the President wasn't there. I think at some point, again, you have a situation that is not as it -- as not as it was called in. I think when somebody -- I think being arrested in your own home for being in your home -- I think the fact that those charges have been dropped denote that there clearly was a point at which this got far out of -- far out of control.
Q But does he regret his use of language in saying "acting stupidly," because online polls show lots of people of Massachusetts were disappointed that he used those words while acknowledging that he wasn't in full possession of the facts.
MR. GIBBS: Again, I think if you look at the fact that a situation got as far out of control at a certain point as it did underscores the fact that things were going in a direction that neither wanted it to go in.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.