We've had the Beer Summit and its teachable moment. If nothing else it put an end (save on Larry King Live and the outer reaches of the cable channels) to the Michael Jackson coverage. Well if it was, in the Oprahesque formulation, a teachable moment - what was being taught? And what has been learned?
Well, among other things, we've learned once again what a smooth politician Barack Obama is. This confrontation between a Harvard professor and a policeman became a nationwide concern when the President, speaking as a friend of the professor, inserted himself - unwisely - into it. He amplified the issues and dug a big hole for himself. The "teachable moment" was his dexterous exit from that hole.
During a prime-time press conference on his health-care plan, Mr. Obama accepted a question on the matter. That was his first mistake. The second was prefacing his answer with an acknowledgment he wasn't clear on the facts. The third and deepest mistake, having laid so insecure and vaporous a foundation, was to pronounce with certitude that the Cambridge, Mass., police - Sergeant James Crowley, by implication, in particular - had "acted stupidly" in arresting Professor Henry Louis Gates.
He linked it, despite not knowing the facts, to racial profiling. "What I think we know, separate and apart from this incident is that there's a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately," Mr. Obama said. "That's just a fact." The incident, he said, was a reminder that "race remains a factor in the society."
That was a very big slip. Now President Obama is no slouch. He has as keen an intellect on matters of verbal nuance as his illustrious predecessor, Bill Clinton, who once detained the attention of America with a spontaneous exposition, under oath, on the meaning of the word "is." Mr. Obama had to have known - this didn't depend on any particulars of what passed between the professor and the policeman - that whatever had happened at the Cambridge house, it wasn't racial profiling.
Racial profiling is a very particular matter. It's arbitrarily fixing on a suspect because of his or her race. Ten cars go by, and the policeman stops the car with a black driver. Because the driver is black. It is an action that is precipitated by nothing else but the race of the "suspect." It's equivalent to a police officer saying: "You're black - come with me."
Sgt. Crowley in this episode wasn't idly scouting around an upscale Cambridge neighbourhood looking for someone to arrest because of his skin colour. He was responding to a call from a neighbour of Prof. Gates reporting that two people looked liked they were breaking into his, the professor's, house. Call came. Officer responded. As he should have. Race didn't come into it.
Officer Crowley didn't show up to investigate a potential burglary because Prof. Gates was black. He showed up because someone reported a potential burglary. People may argue about the argument that followed between the policeman and the professor. Whether that had racial elements. Whether the professor was prejudiced against the cop, or the cop against the professor. But the cop wasn't on the scene, and the professor wasn't being singled out, because of race. Twist the incident any way it can be twisted, but it doesn't fit the category of racial profiling.
Mr. Obama must have known that even as he was speaking. He's too smart not to have. And when the backlash from the Cambridge police inevitably came, when even black officers were speaking out that the President had rushed to judgment, he knew he had - in today's phrasing - to walk it back. And it's a tribute to this politician's incredible smoothness that instead of simply acknowledging he'd spoken too quickly, and mischaracterized the events of that night, that he declared it a "teachable moment" and invited everyone involved to the White House for a beer.
What was really "teachable" here was how incredibly quick people, including the President, are to insert race - make it the ruling dynamic of any encounter or controversy - when race is not the governing factor. To use it as a screen or a cudgel or a distraction, to divert from what is really, and less explosively, at question. What is also teachable is that when race is inserted, it drowns out all other particulars. It takes an encounter between two people, two individuals, and transforms it into a stereotype of racial melodrama.
Mr. Obama, by his careless words during the press conference, extended what was at worst a head-butting between two strong and agitated personalities, into a national drama with race as its theme.
And finally what we've learned is that when Mr. Obama slips - and he did here - he's very quick with the repair work. He calls the beer summit, refocuses the drama as a misunderstanding between a good policeman and a renowned scholar, and asks the nation to look upon the entire episode as an occasion for reflection and deliberation. A teachable moment.
For everyone, apparently, except himself.