President Barack Obama backed down on Friday from a statement that police had "acted stupidly" in arresting a black scholar in a racially charged case that was rapidly becoming a distraction for Obama.
This is proof of the savvy and political smarts of the Obama team. He should not have characterized any aspect of the incident, and he knew it: in his press conference he stated that he did "not know all the facts." Yet he went on to characterize the behavior of Cambridge police as "stupid." Aside from giving fodder to the right-wing nuts, and those people bray all the time, the incident was getting legs. So he defused it.
The president made a surprise appearance in the White House press briefing room shortly after he spoke by phone to Cambridge, Massachusetts, police Sgt. James Crowley, who had arrested Henry Louis Gates, a prominent scholar of African-American studies at Harvard, last week.
"Because this has been ratcheting up and I obviously helped to contribute ratcheting it up, I wanted to make clear in my choice of words I think I unfortunately gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge Police Department or Sgt. Crowley specifically," Obama said. "And I could have calibrated those words differently."
Just as the wise Latina, Judge Sotomayor, recalibrated her own words.
Crowley suggested Obama invite him and Gates, to the White House for a peace-making beer, and a plan was in the works to do so, Obama said.
For Obama, who took office as the first U.S. black president in January. the incident was a distraction when his signature legislative priority, a healthcare overhaul, was stalling in the U.S. Congress. Obama said he hoped the event would end up being a "teachable moment, where all of us instead of pumping up the volume spend a little more time listening to each other" and improve race relations "instead of flinging accusations."
"Lord knows we need it right now -- because 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 health care," he said.
They noticed at the White House, too. This defuses the incident, makes the President look good, and refocuses the discussion,