A Teachable Moment Indeed

July 27, 2009

The Henry Louis Gates Jr./Cambridge police flap is most significant for what it tells us about President Barack Obama, his approach to the presidency, and his general attitude, including on matters of race.

In his July 22 news conference on health care, one member of the media asked Obama, “What does (the Gates arrest) incident say to you, and what does it say about race relations in America?”

Without hesitation, Obama launched into what appeared to be a pre-considered response. Had he been caught off guard by the question, we might assume he would hesitate — at least briefly — and then decline to inject himself into the matter.

We should expect Obama, of all people, given his reputation for coolness and sagacity, to act presidentially, not only in measuring his thoughts before speaking but also in declining to comment on local matters beyond his duties and about which he doesn’t have all the facts.

But Obama’s attitude toward the presidency is not particularly aligned with what our constitutional Framers had in mind. He obviously believes it is his prerogative to micromanage any and every aspect of American life, from the catastrophic to the mundane.

He’s displayed this attitude in town hall meetings, where he has given advice to attendees concerning their specific problems, as if it were his place to make personal house calls on matters ranging from people’s health care problems to their mortgages. All of this is consistent with Obama’s perception of government’s cradle-to-grave caretaker role and his effort to cultivate a dependency mindset in Americans.

But in this case, Obama decided to weigh in, even after admitting that “Skip” Gates is his “friend,” that he “may be a little biased here,” and that he didn’t “know all the facts.” We know he made this decision with premeditation, because White House press secretary Robert Gibbs admitted they had anticipated and prepared for the question.

Obama recited a Gates-slanted version of the events, suggesting that Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley arrested Gates for disorderly conduct after Gates, inside his home, showed Crowley his ID. Obama pointedly added that the charges were “later dropped.”

Then he gratuitously and incendiarily threw race into the mix, saying that we don’t know what role race played in the incident (hint, hint) and adding that it’s “fair to say … any of us would be pretty angry.” He said the Cambridge police acted “stupidly” in arresting Gates in his own home — completely ignoring Crowley’s explanation that he arrested Gates for his disorderly and abusive behavior as opposed to his race. Obama exacerbated that impression by launching into a mini-diatribe about the “long history” of racial profiling by American cops. “That’s just a fact,” he said.

Obama intentionally exploited the incident with reckless disregard for the damage he did to Gates, to law enforcement generally, and to ongoing race relations. All in all, a disgraceful performance and not one befitting a self-described post-racial president.

Adding insult to injury, he later held a news conference, not to apologize, but to justify himself. The arrogance and presumptuousness of his original remarks were only exceeded by these follow-up statements.

He revealed that he had personally talked with both Sgt. Crowley and professor Gates. Can you imagine the media reaction if President Bush — the guy they said never admitted his mistakes — had insinuated himself to that degree in a local matter?

Obama said he had given an unfortunate impression that he was maligning Crowley or the Cambridge Police Department and could have — not even “should have” — “calibrated” his words differently. Pure weasel words when a simple, heartfelt apology would have sufficed.

Next he offered his patronizing assessment that both men probably overreacted and that cooler heads should have prevailed. How about an acknowledgment that he — Obama — overreacted?

How does Obama know whether both were at fault? He may pretend he was being noble and high-minded by declaring that each shared blame, but if it turns out that Crowley was acting appropriately, then Obama further damaged him by suggesting otherwise.

Just as importantly, why would he continue, inappropriately, to comment on the facts? Obviously because he wanted to exploit this incident as a “teachable moment” on race relations, whether or not the facts fit his template.

If there’s a teachable moment here, it’s that not everything between blacks and whites or Hispanics and whites is about race, and people, especially U.S. presidents when commenting on local matters that don’t concern them, should not always jump to the conclusion that racism is involved. They should not yell “racism” (or any other “ism”) first and examine the facts later. Leave that to the Sharptons and Jacksons.

If President Obama truly wants to enhance race relations, he would be better served to follow the example of Bill Cosby rather than that of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.