Obama moves to quell Gates furor
President Obama, seeking to quell a racial controversy that he stoked just days before, telephoned Cambridge police Sergeant James M. Crowley yesterday and offered a well-received statement of regret, in a conversation that ended with talk of the men gathering in the White House to share a beer.
With his call to Crowley, a subsequent one to Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., and an unannounced appearance in the White House briefing room, Obama dramatically lowered the temperature of a debate that has raged across the nation since word broke early this week of the white sergeant arresting the black professor at his Cambridge home.
“I want to make clear that in my choice of words, I unfortunately gave the impression that I was maligning the Cambridge Police Department and Sergeant Crowley specifically,’’ Obama said in his appearance before the White House press corps, addressing the assertion he made in a prime-time press conference Wednesday that Cambridge police had “acted stupidly.’’
“I could have calibrated those words differently, and I told this to Sergeant Crowley,’’ Obama said.
“I continue to believe that there was an overreaction in pulling professor Gates out of his home and to the station,’’ Obama said. “I also continue to believe, based on what I’ve heard, that professor Gates overreacted, as well.’’
The calls were the focal point of a whirlwind day in which Cambridge officials declined to release tape recordings of radio transmissions from last week’s encounter between Gates and Crowley.
One veteran Cambridge officer who said he was briefed on the tapes told the Globe that Gates can be heard yelling at Crowley, supporting at least some of Crowley’s assertions in his police report that Gates was heated. The officer spoke under the condition of anonymity.
Crowley made the radio transmission from inside Gates’s front door as he alerted colleagues that the backup cruisers rushing to the scene should be slowed down for safety reasons, because Crowley was already there and investigating, according to the officer. In the recording, Crowley described Gates as irate, the officer said.
Also yesterday, Sergeant Leon Lashley, a black Cambridge officer at the scene of Gates’s arrest, told reporters that he supports Crowley 100 percent.
“From what I’ve seen, and I was there, he did nothing wrong,’’ Lashley told a CNN reporter after a noontime press conference in Cambridge. “There’s nothing rogue about him. He was doing his job.’’
But it was a day in which confrontation transformed into what appears to be the early stages of conciliation. The Obama calls and the possibility of some barstool diplomacy seemed to have an immediate impact on the players involved.
Though Crowley could not be reached for comment, a colleague said he was pleased with the president’s words. His brother, J.P. Crowley, a fellow officer on the Cambridge department, said: “I think he just wants to get back to a sense of normalcy, back to work. He didn’t ask for this.’’
Gates, a friend of Obama’s, initially sent an e-mail to a Globe reporter exclaiming, “No more comments!’’ That, however, was soon followed up with a comment, that he would meet with Obama and Crowley.
“My entire academic career has been based on improving race relations, not exacerbating them,’’ Gates said in the e-mail, adding, “It is time for all of us to move on, and to assess what we can learn from this experience.’’
Obama’s calls also seemed to ease some of the ire in the law enforcement community. Representatives from area police unions had denounced the president earlier in the day during a shoulder-to-shoulder noontime press conference in Cambridge, with Crowley, dressed in a suit and tie, standing silently nearby. By later in the afternoon, union officials were applauding the president.
“Sergeant Crowley was profoundly grateful that the president took time out of his busy schedule to attempt to resolve this situation,’’ said a statement by the Cambridge Police Superior Officers Association, the Cambridge Police Patrol Officers Association, and the Massachusetts Municipal Police Coalition. “It is clear to us from this conversation that the president respects police officers and the often difficult and dangerous situations we face on a daily basis.’’
In recounting his five-minute phone exchange with Crowley for the media, Obama did not use the words apologize or sorry, but he made it clear that he rued fanning the flames of an already explosive story.
“My hope is that, as a consequence of this event, this ends up being what’s called a teachable moment,’’ Obama said. “Where all of us, instead of pumping up the volume, spend a little more time listening to each other and trying to focus on how we can generally improve relations between police officers and minority communities. And that instead of flinging accusations, we can all be a little more reflective about what we can do to contribute to more unity.’’
About an hour after Obama called Crowley, he phoned Gates and had a “positive discussion’’ about his conversation with the sergeant and his latest remarks to reporters, according to a White House statement. Obama, a Harvard Law School graduate and friend of Gates’s, invited the professor to join him and Crowley at the White House soon.
The president’s phone calls to the Cambridge police officer and the renowned scholar of African-American history marked the latest twist in a bizarre series of events that began July 16, when Crowley responded to a report of a break-in at Gates’s Cambridge house. A passerby had seen Gates and his livery driver trying to force open a stubborn front door and called police.
A confrontation occurred between Gates and Crowley when the sergeant demanded to see identification. Crowley ended up arresting Gates on a charge of disorderly conduct and led him off in handcuffs.
The arrest triggered Gates’s accusations of racial profiling and the threat of a lawsuit. Police officers, in turn, dismissed the criticism and said Crowley had every right to arrest the professor for allegedly behaving disruptively during the confrontation. The controversy boiled over when the president made his remarks during a televised press conference Wednesday that was otherwise devoted to his healthcare agenda.
Obama acknowledged yesterday that he had a political motivation to get the controversy behind him.
“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 healthcare,’’ Obama said.
Despite his regrets, Obama took umbrage with critics who have said he should not have waded into a local matter.
“I have to tell you that that part of it I disagree with,’’ he said. “The fact that this has become such a big issue, I think, is indicative of the fact that race is still a troubling aspect of our society. Whether I were black or white, I think that my commenting on this and, hopefully, contributing to constructive, as opposed to negative, understandings about the issue is part of my portfolio.’’
On a lighter note, Obama said he and Crowley had discussed “he and I and Professor Gates having a beer here in the White House.’’
“We don’t know if that’s scheduled yet, but we may put that together,’’ the president said.
By later in the afternoon, the possibility of a meeting rocketed toward reality, with the White House issuing a statement describing Obama’s call to Gates, concluding with, “The President also invited Gates to join him with Sergeant Crowley at the White House in the near future.’’
Harvard law professor Charles J. Ogletree Jr., one of Gates’s lawyers, praised the president, a former student of his, for calling both men. “I think the president has taken the right approach by trying to make sure we move forward,’’ Ogletree said.
In a week of escalating tension, yesterday afternoon’s events stood in stark contrast. Steve Killion, president of the Cambridge Patrol Officers Association, said Obama’s call had “gone some way toward mending the fence with the patrol officers’’ in his union.
“He acknowledges he made a mistake,’’ Killion said. “He wasn’t there. None of us have the facts. He didn’t have the facts. We don’t have the facts. We don’t know what Professor Gates said, what Sergeant Crowley said.’’
Governor Deval Patrick issued a statement saying, “The President’s remarks are welcome and should allow this conversation to move forward in a positive, constructive, and level-headed manner.’’
Crowley and Obama’s call ended on a decidedly light note. According to Obama, “he wanted to find out if there was a way of getting the press off his lawn,’’ the president said.
“I informed him that I can’t get the press off my lawn. He pointed out that my lawn is bigger than his lawn.
Tracy Jan, John Ellement, Matt Viser, David Abel, Meghan Irons, Martin Finucane, and Andrew Ryan of the Globe staff contributed to this report.