Just a few guys having a beer

You would think Obama has more to do than worry about local police

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Sunday, August 2, 2009

Every Thursday, Barack Obama and the boys sit around the patio of the White House, sipping a few cold ones, and telling stories about race relations in America.

The U.S. president said he wanted "a teachable moment" when he invited Henry Lewis Gates and James Crowley to discuss "the incident" over a few beers. Gates, who is black, is the Harvard scholar who was busted for breaking into his own home by Crowley, the local Cambridge cop, who is white, and an expert on sensitivity training.

This is a story everyone understands. Health care, climate change, the recession, the deficit, the Middle East, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan - these are complex stories to explain in sound bites on cable television or talk radio.

Race relations in America? That's different. Everyone has an opinion on that. It's as American as apple pie. If you think the language issue is a touchy subject in Canada, that's nothing beside race relations in the United States.

So what was the teachable moment in a story that has dominated the American news cycle in the last 10 days of July, ever since Obama let it slip, in the Q&A part of a news conference on health care, that the Cambridge police "acted stupidly" in arresting Gates for breaking into and entering his own house?

Well, first of all, that Obama himself acted stupidly in commenting on a local police matter, thus raising it to national status. He's not in the legislature in Springfield, Illinois, anymore, he's in the White House. Professor Gates might be a fellow Harvard man and friend, but it's not the president's job to rush in and trash the local cops. They have a mayor for that.

Obama's invitation to Gates and Crowley was essentially an exercise in damage control. C'mon, let's talk about it over a beer. That's a pretty American way of settling differences, rather than settling scores. And of all the issues around race in America, few are more sensitive than racial profiling by the police. Black kids are told by their parents that they're more likely to be questioned by cops than white kids are. Cops are told not to single blacks out. But stuff happens, like one of Gates's neighbours calling the cops when he was forcing open the jammed door of his own house. Apparently tempers got a little short, and Crowley asked Gates down to the station to talk about it.

What they talked about at the White House "beer summit" is apparently classified. Reporters, in feeding frenzy mode, were allowed only a brief photo op, and at that were kept far enough away so that their intrusive digital sound recorders couldn't pick up any of the conversation.

So, here's what we know. Their choice of beer brands was very interesting, and doubtless the subject of endless lobbying by the beer companies.

Obama chose Bud Lite, the best selling beer in America. How could he go wrong? Except that Budweiser, like Labatt in Canada, is now owned by a bunch of Belgians. Couldn't the president at least find an American-owned beer, like a Coors Lite? At least Molson-Coors is a North American brand, and a great argument for free trade in beer between the United States and Canada.

As for his guests, there were conflicting versions of their suds of choice. Gates quaffed a Samuel Adams Lite, "America's world class beer," brewed right in Boston.

So, the two black guys were drinking Lites. As for the white guys, Crowley ordered a Blue Moon, perhaps in honour of police blue, but his choice was described as a "Belgian-style white ale." Those darn Belgians again? Nope, it's brewed in Golden, Colorado, home of Coors, er, Molson-Coors.

As for Joe Biden, he doesn't drink, but the New York Times reported on Friday that he had a Buckler non-alcoholic beer with a twist of lemon and that Crowley "kept with Blue Moon tradition and had a slice of orange in his drink."

Biden predicted during last fall's campaign that Obama would be severely tested in his first six months in office. Apparently, he has passed the beer test. And at least nobody asked for a glass of California Chardonnay.

 
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