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Is Obama's Image Stained By Gates Controversy?


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

President Obama wanted to stay on message about health care this week but made an extraordinary appearance in the White House briefing room yesterday to say that he'd called Sergeant James Crowley, the Cambridge, Massachusetts, police officer who'd arrested Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. for disorderly conduct. Mr. Obama said he told Sergeant Crowley he didn't mean to malign him when said the Cambridge police had acted stupidly.

President BARACK OBAMA: Even when you've got a police officer who has a fine track record on racial sensitivity, interactions between police officers and the African-American community can sometimes be fraught with misunderstanding.

SIMON: Cambridge police dropped the disorderly conduct charge against Professor Gates but many officers, including African-American policemen on the Cambridge force, defended Officer Crowley, and the president said that he and officer Crowley talked about meeting with professor Gates at the White House over a beer.

NPR News analyst, our friend Juan Williams, joins us in our studios. Juan, thanks for being with us.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: This story seemed to build throughout the week. Details came out, as it turned out, Officer Crowley had taught classes how to avoid racial profiling. He had saved the life of Boston Celtics star Reggie Lewis in 1993. How did the incident play out politically this week?

WILLIAMS: Badly for President Obama. It damaged him. You know, President Obama has tremendous appeal, and much of it's tied to his image as a racially healing force in American society, given our history. And this week, he seemed all too at ease with lobbing presidentially powered words into what was a local racial fracas, and he did so without the facts.

He's now backpedaling, trying to retreat but not apologize, while saying and admitting he ratcheted up the controversy unnecessarily, and he didn't intend to malign the police officer or the police department. But at this point, this is the kind of thing that pulls at him and changes his image in the American mind.

SIMON: Juan, you're not only news and political analyst here, one of America's foremost historians on the civil rights movement and a real philosopher about the importance of race in society. Help us understand what factors do come into play here.

WILLIAMS: Well, you know, Scott, I think at the press conference on Wednesday, the president spoke about racial profiling, the history of racial tensions between police and black people, which is very real in American society, a continuing issue.

The president said he didn't understand the controversy exactly, didn't understand - this is what he said, then, Thursday as the controversy got going. He said he didn't understand why his words were viewed as anything but just rational and logical. Because, he said, why should the police arrest a middle-aged man in his own house who walks with a cane, after the man showed his identification?

That's when I think the thing really spiraled, because it was obvious not only didn't he have the facts but he wasn't pursuing the facts. It seems like he was just content in his own mindset. And when it comes to race, you really do have to look at the facts. And the facts were, of course, that as supported by black, Latino and white officers, that there was a break-in and that's why the police came.

There was no racial profiling involved, there's no history here, neighbor calling because a break-in's occurring. And then professor Gates, being abusive - professor Gates hasn't denied anything in the police report that describes him as introducing the issue of race, talking about the officer's mother, using highly charged language and being loud and angry persistently, even after the officer is trying to explain the situation.

SIMON: It was pointed out this week that mayor of Cambridge, governor of Massachusetts, president of the U.S., are all African-Americans. But there are African-Americans who resent the conclusion that all of these gains suggest that racism isn't a factor in American life anymore. And I wonder if this was an instance where people took an actual local police matter and tried to make it into some kind of metaphor, and maybe it wasn't.

WILLIAMS: I think that's exactly right. I think people tried to make it larger than it was. I mean, all this talk about this is what it's like to be a black man in America. Let me just say on a personal level, Scott, I mean, I've had times when the alarm's gone off at my house, the police show up. Having grown up in Brooklyn in the midst of the '60s, I have an uneasy relationship with white cops showing up.

But you know what? I'm always quite deferential. It's what I've said to my kids, my sons, especially. You know, if you're reaching for your wallet, make sure the cop knows that you're reaching for your wallet. Say yes, sir. And so, when the cops come, they want to come in my house, they want to see my identification, they want to look around. I guess they want to make sure there's not someone hiding in a closet and telling me to get rid of the cops. That's all there, and I think that in this situation, President Obama and Professor Gates didn't hold up that line.

SIMON: NPR's Juan Williams, thanks very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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