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What a White House Beer Says About Race and Politics

New York Times reporters Helene Cooper, Peter Baker and Jeff Zeleny are live-blogging the so-called beer summit of President Obama, Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and the officer who arrested him in Cambridge nearly two weeks ago, Sgt. James Crowley. While the meeting is going on, the reporters are taking questions from readers, and Helene Cooper is reporting live from the White House. Here are the latest updates:

Crowley’s News Conference | 7:30 p.m.

During his short opening remarks, Sgt. Crowley said that he had a “cordial and productive discussion” with President Obama, Mr. Biden and Mr. Gates. He declined to go into specifics of what was discussed, but he did note that he would have a follow-up conversation with Mr. Gates in the future.

Head’s Up, They Headed Out | 7:25 p.m.

The latest pool report tells us that Mr. Gates and Sgt. Crowley have left the White House. Sgt. Crowley will host a news conference in several minutes.

Obama’s Statement | 7:16 p.m.

The president’s statement, released just now, noted that Mr. Gates and Sgt. Crowley had met earlier:

“I am thankful to Professor Gates and Sergeant Crowley for joining me at the White House this evening for a friendly, thoughtful conversation. Even before we sat down for the beer, I learned that the two gentlemen spent some time together listening to one another, which is a testament to them. I have always believed that what brings us together is stronger than what pulls us apart. I am confident that has happened here tonight, and I am hopeful that all of us are able to draw this positive lesson from this episode.”

The President and Race | 6:53 p.m.

Peter Baker weighs in on what the incident tells us about the president and his approach to race:

One thing we’ve learned is that President Obama has yet to always find sure footing when it comes to race. His critics remember the incendiary rhetoric of his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, as well as Mr. Obama’s comments last year about rural Americans clinging to guns and religion, his position in the racially charged incident in Jena, Louisiana, and his reference to his grandmother as “a typical white person” because she was nervous when approached by a black man on the street. (See this piece in National Review.)

At the same time, supporters invest great faith in Mr. Obama that he can move the country beyond old divisions on race, and he has benefited from the perception that he is by nature someone who wants to build a new paradigm. The Gates incident shows that he has the capacity to inflame, intentionally or not, partly just by virtue of who he is, and that he has an instinct to try to mediate, as with this beer at the picnic table, something I can’t picture any previous president doing. How he will reconcile these in the future is something to watch.

The Media Attention | 6:50 p.m.

“I would like to ask this panel if they are aware that they, and the rest of the media, are being played like a fiddle by the most savvy politician that any of them will ever know?” — Jack Cohen

Jeff Zeleny: That’s a good question.

This controversy has certainly overtaken – or at least competed strongly against – the administration’s health care proposals. In that case, at least, perhaps all the extraneous chatter about the afternoon beer has been a good thing for the president. But that’s almost certainly where the upside ends. There was little advantage, aides believe, for the president to become entangled in a national discussion over race. The media has certainly reacted – and, it could accurately be argued, overreacted – to the brouhaha. But for politicians, there are considerable drawbacks to playing a game of “three dimensional chess.” Why? It is difficult, if not impossible, to walk away pleasing the viewpoints from all sides. So if likeability is one of Mr. Obama’s biggest selling points, it’s a dicey strategy to wade into terrain like this on purpose, simply to play the media.

Finally! | 6:38 p.m.
With the pool report, we finally have the answer to the most pressing question of the day: What are they drinking? Well, for those who believed Bud Lite would be the drink of choice for Mr. Obama, they are in luck, as are those who thought Sgt. Crowley would stay with Blue Moon. Mr. Gates drank Sam Adams Light (a Massachusetts-based brew), and Mr. Biden chose a Buckler, a non-alcohol beer.

Maybe Mr. Biden has to drive home.

It’s Begun | 6:24 p.m.

Helene Cooper: At 6:12, reporters and photographers were allowed in for a scant 40 seconds, where they could view the four men sitting around a table drinking out of frosty beer mugs. Four men, you ask? Weren’t there supposed to be three—President Obama, Professor Gates, and Sgt. Crowley?

And Vice President Joseph Biden! He was there too. In fact, during the brief time that the press could watch the goings-on, Mr. Biden leaned across the table towards Sgt. Crowley and said something. At another point, Sgt. Crowley gesturing with his hands, said something to Professor Gates.

And then, the press was ushered out.

Beer and Photo Ops | 6:16 p.m.

Jeff Zeleny: This is not the first time Mr. Obama has turned to beer for a photo opportunity.

First, the president is not known to be a big drinker. (Who can forget the time, as a freshman senator in 2005, when he asked for water instead of vodka during a ceremonial toast with local dignitaries during a trip to Russia?) He will have an occasional cocktail, but like many politicians, is seldom seen having more than a single drink in public.

But a little more than a year ago, as Mr. Obama sought to win over working-class voters during the Indiana primary, he turned up in North Liberty, Ind., and walked into V.F.W. Post 1954, where a Coors Light clock was hanging on the wall.

“I’m not going to give a speech or anything,” he told the small crowd inside on May 1, 2008. “I just want to stop by and maybe get a beer as well.”

Before ordering, he looked around the bar to see what the locals were drinking.

“I’m going to have a Bud,” Mr. Obama said.

With cameras rolling, he took a big sip from his icy cold red, white and blue can.

“I’m going to vote for you if you drink Budweiser,” a man named Vic Vukovits told Mr. Obama.

A week later, he narrowly lost the Indiana primary. But six months later, Mr. Obama carried Indiana in the general election, a feat not done by a Democrat in more than four decades.

Are the Reporters Invited? | 6:02 p.m.

“Will the White House also offer a beer to the reporters covering the event? Are you allowed inside?” — Elizabeth

Peter Baker: No! And isn’t that the real crime here!

Helene Cooper: Here at the White House, the handful of reporters who are in the press pool will be taken to the beer summit site. Unfortunately, I do not have pool duty. So I and the majority of the press corps will wait impatiently to get the pool report from our pool colleagues.

Will Sgt. Crowley Speak? | 5:45 p.m.

A reader question about a discrepancy in the police report:

“I am curious…is anyone, a reporter, Professor Gates, President Obama, or otherwise, going to press officer Crowley today on the discrepancy in his police report where he claimed the witness/caller told him that she saw ‘two black men with backpacks?’ We now all know that the only thing she told Crowley was that she was the one who made the 911 call - NO mention of ‘black’ or ‘race’ to him what-so-ever.” — Jeff Bordner

Peter Baker: That’s certainly a question reporters would ask Sgt. Crowley if he makes himself available for questions afterward. My guess is there won’t be such an opportunity but we’ll see. Update: Sgt. Crowley plans to have a news conference at 7:30 p.m.

They’re Here | 5:42 p.m.

Helene Cooper: A White House official says both Professor Gates and Sgt. James Crowley and their respective families have arrived and are in the building.

Everyone is getting along so far, the official said.

And What About Health Care? | 5:25 p.m.

Peter Baker weighs in to answer a reader question about the choice of news coverage.

“I’d like to know why a reporter would even feel the need to ask the president about such a mild local controversy during a press conference on HEALTH CARE. There are 46 million Americans without affordable access to health care and a Congress that is trying to do something about it for the first time in 16 years.

If you can answer why a reporter would ask the question (don’t we already all know the answer…?), could you also please explain why the NYT is expending so many resources, column inches and electrons on such a completely frivolous story?” — Christopher Gomez

Peter Baker: Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times can answer for herself about why she asked the question. But if she didn’t and I were called on, I certainly would have. I was surprised no one else had by the time she was called on for the final question. With all respect, it was hardly a “mild local controversy”; it was one of those moments that touch a nerve in American society and get people to talk about things that often go undiscussed. Asking a president his opinion in such a circumstance, especially given that one of the protagonists was a friend of his, is what reporters do. If he thinks it’s frivolous and wants not to answer, he’s free to not answer.

As for health care, keep in mind that it was not a “health care news conference.” It was a news conference at which any topic was fair game; in fact, what was rare about this news conference is how much one topic, health care, dominated it for the first 55 minutes. As for Times resources, if you’re more interested in health care than this, then please check out the two stories we had on health care on today’s front page and the third story we had inside about it.

Setting the Stage | 5:12 p.m.

Helene Cooper: Earlier I asked Mr. Gibbs what the White House hoped to accomplish from the evening’s gathering.

“I don’t think the president has outsized expectations that one cold beer at one table here is going to change massively the course of human history by any sense of the imagination, but that he and the two individuals, Sgt. Crowley and Professor Gates, can hopefully provide a far different picture than what we’ve seen to date of — of this situation, in hopes again, as I’ve said both today and before, that this is a conversation and a dialogue that happens not just because it’s sponsored by or at the invitation of a participant or the president, but happens in communities large and small all over the country in order to make progress through better understanding. I think that’s what the president wants to do today,” Mr. Gibbs responded.

Again, Mr. Obama has said that he wants this to be a “teachable moment.” He’s taken a big risk though, and whether this turns out okay will depend hugely at whether Sgt. Crowley and Professor Gates bury the hatchet — preferably not in each other’s heads — and make nice.

Anxiously Awaiting | 5:05 p.m.

Helene Cooper just wrote in with the scene at the White House.

Helene Cooper: Reporters have stationed themselves everywhere they can trying to catch a glimpse of an arriving Sgt. Crowley or Professor Gates….or their families.

Five people — all white — including a young boy and two older teenage girls, arrived at the West Wing gate at around 4:45 p.m. They immediately found themselves followed in by suspicious reporters. As they passed a group of cameramen, one yelled out: “Not to be rude, but can you say who you are?”

The response: “Not who you think.”

Meanwhile, outside on Pennsylvania Avenue, the protesters have arrived. So far most of them seem to be pro-Gates. “Disrespect may be bad manners, but it is not a crime,” says one. “Free speech is not disorderly conduct” says another.

‘Teachable Moment’ | 4:57 p.m.

“Mr. Obama has said that this is a ‘teachable moment.’ What is he going to learn from it? Or, is he going to lecture the rest of again?” — John

Jeff Zeleny: Yes, President Obama has called this a “teachable moment.” So what has he learned from it? First and foremost, he surely has learned that his words – all of them – carry considerable weight. Everything that passes through a president’s lips will be amplified, parsed and replayed again and again. So Mr. Obama, at least his aides hope, will be less likely to speak in an unscripted fashion. Regardless of the wisdom or accuracy of his words at the White House news conference last week, Mr. Obama seemed to be speaking spontaneously and with passion. Don’t look for a repeat of that anytime soon.

Helene Cooper: President Obama’s initial answer — the one that touched off the furor when he said the Cambridge police “acted stupidly”— was the kind of answer, straightforward and from the gut, that you would expect during a discussion you had with your friends at a bar. Even more interestingly, it came after an hour-long press conference during which Mr. Obama had filibustered and lectured his way through a series of questions on health care. And then, suddenly came the Gates question from Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun Times, and a straight answer from Mr. Obama. My brother would have said the same thing: Wow, he actually answered a question!

Except he’s president, and answering that question straight got him into a heap of trouble. So I think what’s he’s learned from this is that as president, he can’t really say what he thinks.

About that Beer | 4:47 p.m.

Helene Cooper kicked the roundtable off with a reader question, answering what appears to be the top question on everyone’s minds:

“This is trivial but I’ve been wondering about this ever since I heard there was going to be a ‘Beer Summit.’ What beer will President Obama serve his guests?” — Frank

Helene Cooper: The White House has been asked this question about a zillion times. Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman, said there will be a “variety” of beers available, including Bud Lite (what President Obama will presumably drink), Red Stripe (Professor Gates’ professed choice) and Blue Moon for Sgt. Crowley.

Jeff Zeleny: This has been one of the most often-asked questions this week at the White House. Bud Lite for President Obama. Blue Moon for Sergeant Crowley and Red Stripe for Professor Gates. Why does it matter what kind of beer they drink? It doesn’t, but that hasn’t stopped us from talking about it.

“How much is this costing the taxpayers?” — Paul

Jeff Zeleny: The White House is buying the beer, but that’s it.

Sgt. Crowley and Professor Gates are paying for their own trips to Washington, according to Bill Burton, a spokesman for the White House. “They made their own accommodations,” he said in an e-mail message.

’Suds Summit’| 4:30 p.m.

It’s being called the “beer break” or the “suds summit.” But the gathering at the White House on Thursday evening of President Obama, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the Harvard scholar, and Sgt. James Crowley of the Cambridge, Mass., police department is about issues that will require a lot more than a beverage or two to resolve.

While we wait for the participants to sit down at a picnic table outside the Oval Office, three of the White House correspondents for The Times – Helene Cooper, Jeff Zeleny and Peter Baker – will address some of the big questions raised by the arrest of Professor Gates in his own home and what the incident and Mr. Obama’s response to it tell us about the politics of race in 2009.

We will also try to address some of the questions posed by readers.

It is not clear what, if anything, Mr. Obama and the others will say after their cocktail. But the president had a few words on the subject after meeting Thursday afternoon with the president of the Philippines.

“This is three folks having a drink at the end of the day and hopefully giving people an opportunity to listen to each other,” he said, standing next to Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. “That’s really all it is. It is not a university seminar. It is not a summit.”

The beer summit, Mr. Obama added, is actually a chance to “spend some time with some self-reflecting and realizing that other people can have different points of view.”

Read entire article at NYT blog: The Caucus