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Beer Diplomacy: Obama Aims for Calm and Comity

By Ben Feller, The Associated Press

Jul 29, 2009

WASHINGTON — Three guys, sitting around a picnic table, having a cold one.

Beer diplomacy? The “teachable moment” the president promised? Or just a way for the White House to get people to quit talking about the president’s comments on a racial brouhaha in Massachusetts?

When Barack Obama meets Thursday with the black professor and white policeman at the center of a national uproar over race relations, he is aiming for a show that will get positive news coverage and then go away.

“There’s no formal agenda other than cold beer,” press secretary Robert Gibbs said Tuesday. That’s not quite the teachable moment on racial unity that Obama talked about last Friday when he moved to undercut the controversy that had knocked him off message. Pressed about that, Gibbs said Obama never promised to solve everything with one meeting, and that doing so is not entirely the president’s job anyway.

The broader point: The White House wants to show Obama as a reconciliatory force and then try to get people focused back on his plans for health care overhaul.

By now, most people know the backstory: Henry Louis Gates Jr., a Harvard scholar, was arrested after police responded to a report of a possible break-in at his home in Cambridge. They found no burglars, but Sgt. James Crowley took Gates into custody, accusing him of disorderly conduct in his protesting of police behavior. The charge was soon dropped.

Then Obama inflamed matters by saying the police had “acted stupidly,” though he conceded he didn’t know all the facts about the case and was a little biased anyway because Gates was a friend.

Once the story began pushing all other news to the margins, Obama acknowledged he could have chosen his words better. And he invited both men for a beer.

To be held at 6 p.m. Thursday, the event will offer upbeat footage for the nightly news. A pool of White House reporters will be able to see the men together and capture that image, but the meeting itself will be private. Unclear is whether the president, the professor or the policeman will make any public comments.

“I think it’ll be a poignant moment,” Gibbs said.

It will be a classic White House intervention, said Kevin Sullivan, former communications director for President George W. Bush. With little risk.

“Given what I know about Dr. Gates and what I’ve heard about Sgt. Crowley, I think there’s zero chance that either one of them would come to the White House at the invitation of the president and embarrass him in any way,” said Sullivan, who now runs his own communications company.

The more quickly an administration can deal with whatever crisis has knocked it off stride — particularly one it helped create — the faster it can get back to emphasizing what it wants to talk about.

To help things along, the White House is throwing in an everyman factor. It’s called drinking beer, which has remained steady for Americans during the recession.

Polls showed Bush was the guy people wanted to have a beer with when he ran against Al Gore and John Kerry. But Obama, not Republican rival John McCain, won that vote among people polled in 2008.

Now he’s found at least two people to have a beer with him — on camera — although turning down the president isn’t a likely option.

The emphasis on the beer-drinking part of the deal hasn’t thrilled drug prevention advocates, but there has been no outcry about it either.

For Gates, the White House visit will be a return encounter. He spent time interviewing Bush last year for a documentary on Abraham Lincoln.

The teetotaling Bush told him: “People say, ‘Have you seen Lincoln’s ghost?’ I say, ‘Well, I quit drinking in 1986, so I haven’t seen the ghost. But his presence is felt all throughout the house.’”

And what of the deeper racial questions that have been raised?

“The unfortunate part is that the teachable moment has already occurred,” said Cedric Herring, who directs the Race and Public Policy program at the University of Illinois’ Institute of Government and Public Affairs. “The whole thing about race rearing its head, the fact that it became an explosive story, the charges of racial profiling — that’s actually the moment. It teaches us that we are not beyond race.”

And the meeting? He said, “I don’t think it will be a historical moment for race relations or anything like that.”

AP Polling Director Trevor Tompson and News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this story.

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