Made-for-TV "beer summit"
July 31, 2009 | Just when you think it can't get any weirder, it gets weirder. We have just been treated to another fine example of cable "news" networks' consummate ability to trivialize and hype. Our drama unfolds in five acts, like all good Shakespeare comedies.
Act I - The arrest
Renowned African-American Harvard professor returns from a trip to find his door jammed. He and the cab driver jimmy it open. Lady calls 911 to report possible break-in. Respected white police officer, coincidentally a police department instructor for diversity training and racial relations, responds to call. Words are spoken. Policeman arrests professor and hauls him to the station for booking.
Note: Act I takes place off-stage; the audience is unaware that it has even taken place.
Act II - The gaffe
The president, coincidentally the nation's first African-American to hold the office, is asked during a prime-time press conference about health care to comment on the professor's arrest. President admits he doesn't know all the facts, but says that on the face of it, the police acted "stupidly" to have arrested someone in his own home after determining that it was, in fact, his own home.
Act III - The firestorm
Bloviators hit the airwaves to create controversy: Did the president go too far? Was it racial profiling? Is the president a racist? Did the president reveal "deep-seated hatred of white people"?
Act IV - The damage control
The president has a chat with advisors and the first lady: his health-care reform initiative is being eclipsed by the controversy. He interrupts the press briefing to acknowledge his "poor choice of words" had inflamed the situation and notes that, following a suggestion of the policeman during a preceding phone call, he, the president, was inviting the professor and the policeman to the White House to talk things over, over a beer.
Act V - Rose Garden happy hour
The policeman, the professor, and the president — and the vice-president, no less — have a beer and salty snacks in the White House Rose Garden.
Cable television covers the event as the "Beer Summit."
Like his predecessor, George W Bush, Obama stepped in the doo-doo with both feet with his comment. Perhaps his testosterone level was a bit high; perhaps the cumulative effects of living while black over-ruled Mr No-drama Obama. No doubt about it, it was a very bad choice of words, giving ammunition to all those who would try to bring him down in general or on health-care in particular.
But, there's also an important difference. Whereas GWB could never imagine that he ever did anything wrong or made a mistake in his entire presidency, Obama owned up to it, and he did it personally in front of the cameras rather than have his press secretary issue a statement. How refreshing! And not only did he accept responsibility, he tried to do something about the situation he had caused. He found a way for everybody to save face. That's leadership. That's being an adult.
It must be noted, however, that the president was right first time. It was stupid for the policeman to arrest the professor, even though he had determined it was the professor's own house. The guy with the power, the guy with the gun, has the responsibility to de-escalate the situation, even if it meant biting his tongue and swallowing his pride. A simple "I'm sorry you're upset, it can see the situation wasn't what it looked like, but I had to respond to the call, have a good night" would have done the trick. Isn't this what the policeman teaches in his classes?
It was, no doubt, a volatile situation. Harvard professors are accustomed to being shown deference, especially one as reknowned as Professor Gates. On top of that, black men in this country are accustomed to being treated with suspicion, of being presumed guilty by virtue of their skin color. Policemen are accustomed to being shown deference — "respect" — while doing their jobs. In almost every situation they are the ones with the power: they have the weapons, they have the entire police force and the weight of the justice system backing them. It was a "Don't you know who I think I am?" versus a "Don't you talk to me that way" (and maybe an implicit "boy"?) situation. We can see how it would happen. But certainly an older man with a cane was not a real physical threat to an fit, younger, armed policeman. The power boat yields to the sailboat, and the policeman had the responsibility to leave, having proved to his own satisfaction that there was no crime.
And now for the media. Are there no grown-ups in charge at the cable networks? Don't they feel any sense of responsibility not to foment controversy where there is none? A countdown timer to the "beer summit" — can it get any more trivial than that? I'm sure Walter Cronkite is spinning in his grave!
Dare I say it? The cable media have acted "stupidly"!
Last updated on Apr 13, 2018