President Barack Obama did the right thing and some quick damage control when he went himself to the White House press room Friday to admit that he had inadvertently "ratcheted up" the issue of the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. He had fueled the controversy when he stated Wednesday night that the "Cambridge police had acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home."
The president seemed to follow the classic, three-part standard of crisis management: acknowledge your mistake, do it as quickly as possible, and, ideally, do it yourself and not through a surrogate.
But interestingly, Obama did not entirely follow all three parts of the rule. He did comply with the second part — acting quickly, within two days of the press conference in which he had made his controversial statement — and with the third rule — he did it himself, taking advantage of his outstanding skills as an extemporaneous communicator who coveys humility, authenticity, and charm.
But the president got away with finessing the first rule: He didn't quite take responsibility for making a mistake.
In fact, he only acknowledged that he "could have calibrated those words differently," presumably meaning he shouldn't have used the words "acted stupidly." But he did not apologize for what he had said.
Indeed, he repeated that he still believed the substance of what he had said: "I continue to believe, based on what I have heard, that there was an overreaction in pulling professor Gates out of his home to the station."
Still, he definitely mitigated the effect of not apologizing or admitting to making a mistake by suggesting that Gates bore some responsibility, too: "I also continue to believe, based on what I heard, that professor Gates probably overreacted." Note, here the president said "probably."
On a personal level and as a matter of law, I agree with the president's position.
First, on a personal level, I think Gates reacted the way most people — white or black — would have reacted under similar circumstances — anger at being asked to step outside from his own home by a police officer even after the officer had confirmed that he was, in fact, in his own home.
Second, Gates also reacted as I think most black people would under these circumstances. They are accustomed to many experiences with police officers — white and black — who begin with a presumption-of-guilt attitude when stopping blacks, whether for a traffic ticket or for any other reason.
As Christopher Edley, Jr., the dean of University of California, Berkeley School of Law, who advised President Bill Clinton on race issues and whom I have known and respected for more than 20 years, wisely commented to the media, the Gates incident should dispel the "rosy hopefulness" of Obama's election "in case anybody needed more evidence that we're not beyond race."
But though Obama did not apologize, he still was able to defuse the situation brilliantly by two sensitive and brilliantly conceived actions: He personally called Sgt. James Crowley and told the press that the sergeant was an "outstanding police officer and a good man," and then he invited the two men to come to the White House for a beer.
That personal touch, especially the invitation to have a beer, was ultimately the most effective idea of all. It moved people, including the media (yes, it's true — don't be shocked — reporters are people, too), to get beyond the facts and law and get down to the basic human reaction with which most people could identify; namely, that this was an unfortunate blowup with misunderstandings on both sides — and so "aw, fahgeddaboutit — let's just have a beer and get over it."
On a substantive level, it is worth noting that the Cambridge police and Crowley seemed to exercise poor judgment in their decision to arrest Gates, while he was in front of his own home, on the charge of "disorderly conduct," handcuff him, and haul him into police headquarters to process his arrest.
The evidence indicates that Gates did speak disrespectfully, offensively, and with personal provocation to Crowley (for example by making a disparaging colloquial reference to the sergeant's mother and by implying that the officer was motivated by racism.)
I don't blame Crowley for being upset by the comments, but the fact is that under the law, such offensive comments to a police officer alone do not constitute the crime of "disorderly conduct." That crime requires some public impact as specifically defined by a state's statute, such as using vulgar and obscene language in a public place, causing a crowd to gather in a public place or annoying passengers on a mode of public transportation.
Offending a police officer with words without any evidence of some adverse public impact should not be considered a crime of disorderly conduct or even disturbing the peace. It should, in fact, be considered First Amendment-protected speech.
That must have been at least one of the major reasons why the prosecutor dropped the charge and further evidence that the Cambridge Police Department was acting out of personal pique and not under the law.
Many police officers from various parts of the country commented to the media on this incident. I was surprised at the number of quotes in which they were not willing to justify the arrest of Gates.
One typical comment from a policeman to a reporter was: "If you don't have a tough skin, then you shouldn't be a cop." Said another, more on point: "If it's their house, they're allowed to call you all sorts of names. A man's home is his castle."
Of course I also understand why police officers, who are subject to intense verbal abuse, are prone to want to teach people a lesson who think they can engage in such abuse.
This leads them to react instinctively and arrest, cuff, and haul the person to jail and then, later, let the prosecutor apply the First Amendment and the law and ultimately drop the charges, which, of course, is exactly what happened in Cambridge.
Thankfully, the incident is over and we can now all get back to debating the serious issue of national health insurance. I only hope that when Gates and Crowley get together with the president to have that beer and put their anger behind them, they will both agree that it is morally unacceptable that America remains the only major Western industrial democracy that doesn't have comprehensive national health insurance and that it is shameful that in America, poor people are more likely to die than rich people when they are sick because of unequal access to quality and timely health care.
Now that is worth getting angry about.
Lanny J. Davis, a Washington lawyer and former special counsel to President Bill Clinton, served as a member of President George W. Bush's Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. He is the author of "Scandal: How 'Gotcha' Politics Is Destroying America."
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