Friday, July 31, 2009

Have Another

Well, the little get-together over beer and peanuts is over. You would think that the way the cable news outlets built it up, it was the most important meeting since Nixon went to China in 1972.

The much-anticipated “beer summit” of President Obama, the Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., and Sgt. James Crowley of the Cambridge Police Department in Massachusetts took place Thursday night, accompanied by minute-by-minute reporting from the White House press corps, countdown clocks from the cable news networks, and a last-minute addition by the White House in the form of Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.

After 10 days of near nonstop news coverage of a case that prompted a thousand news stories about race, the men sat down for less than an hour at a table across from the Oval Office under a magnolia tree.

“What you had today was two gentlemen who agreed to disagree on a particular issue,” a poised and smooth Sergeant Crowley said in a 15-minute news conference after the session. “We didn’t spend too much time dwelling on the past, and we decided to look forward.”

Events like these are like Rorschach tests; you take away from it what you want to see. Some saw it as a cynical attempt by the president to recover from his “acting stupidly” moment at his press conference where he lifted the veil on his anger and hatred for white people (if you listen to someone like Glenn Beck); some saw it as just another photo op on the White House lawn — like when Arafat and Rabin shook hands — that papered over the real differences between the parties and nothing’s really changed; and some saw it as one more way that Barack Obama has confounded the conventional wisdom and demonstrated that no matter how smugly convinced you are that you think you know what he will do, he goes and does something that is completely unexpected yet lands him on his feet with a gentle “ta-da!” It’s a touch of grace, self-awareness, and political savvy that I haven’t seen in a president since JFK. And it answers the perpetual and blindingly irrelevant question that pollsters whip out every election cycle: who would you rather have a beer with?

The president tried to make it look like no big deal, which strains credulity on several levels. First, just by definition, nothing the President of the United States does is not a big deal; that’s a hazard of the job Mr. Obama is ruefully finding out. Second, if it wasn’t a big deal — or at least played up by the West Wing — we would not have had a tick-tock on everything from the location to the choices of beer brands. (You don’t think the brewers whose bottles made it to the table aren’t going to exploit it? Ha.) And we would not have had the instant analysis that caused MSNBC to go into “Breaking News” mode and spent hours with Chris Matthews and his pundit pals analyzing the body language of the president of his guests. (Actually, that tells you much more than you really want to know about Mr. Matthews and the thrill that runs up his leg.)

Staged events like this rarely accomplish anything in themselves, but it does set an example. Take away the hype and the artifice of the lighting, sets, props and costumes (notice that the most casually dressed people in the picture were the most powerful) and what you have is, to coin a phrase, a “teachable moment” that goes beyond the issue of race and profiling and a presidential Kinsley moment: committing a gaffe by speaking the truth. We Americans can accomplish a lot more by sitting down and actually getting to know each other than we can by relying on preconceived notions of race, class, and profession. So if this little beer bash accomplished anything — besides boosting the market share of Bud Light, Bucklers, Sam Adams, and Blue Moon beers — it may get the cop and the prof in other places like Toledo or Albuquerque or Miami to sit down and talk.