WASHINGTON — Trying to tamp down an uproar over race, President Barack Obama said Friday he used an unfortunate choice of words in commenting on the arrest of black scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. and could have "calibrated those words differently."
The president said he had telephoned the white policeman who arrested Gates, and he said the conversation confirmed his belief that the officer was a good man and an outstanding officer.
The president caused a stir when he said at a prime-time news conference earlier this week that Cambridge, Mass., police had "acted stupidly" by arresting Gates, a friend of the president's, for disorderly conduct.
On Friday, Obama made an impromptu appearance at the daily White House briefing in an effort to contain the controversy.
"This has been ratcheting up, and I obviously helped to contribute ratcheting it up," he said. "I want to make clear that in my choice of words, I think I unfortunately gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge police department and Sgt. Crowley specifically. And I could've calibrated those words differently."
Obama suggested the whole incident could be worked out over a drink. "There was discussion about he and I and Professor Gates having a beer here in the White House. We don't know if that is scheduled yet, but we may put that together."
He said he continued to believe that the both the officer, Sgt. James Crowley, and Gates had overreacted during the incident, but the president also faulted his own comments.
"My sense is you've got two good people in a circumstance in which neither of them were able to resolve the incident in the way that it should have been resolved, and the way they would have liked it to be resolved," Obama said. "The fact that it has garnered so much attention, I think, is a testimony to the fact that these are issues that are still very sensitive here in America, and -- you know, so to the extent that my choice of words didn't illuminate but rather contributed to more media frenzy, I think that was unfortunate. What I would like to do, then, is to make sure that everybody steps back for a moment, recognizes that these are two decent people."
Obama also placed the incident within the larger narrative of race relations.
"[B]ecause of our history, because of the difficulties of the past, you know, African-Americans are sensitive to these issues," Obama said. "And 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. My hope is that as a consequence of this event, this ends up being what's called a teachable moment where all of us, instead of pumping up the volume, spend a little more time listening to each other and try to focus on how we can generally improve relations between police officers and minority communities, and that instead of flinging accusations, we can all be a little more reflective in terms of what we can do to contribute to more unity."
The incident began when police went to Gates' home last week after a passer-by reported a potential break-in. It turned out that Gates had tried to jimmy open his own door, which was stuck, and there was no intruder. Gates protested the police actions and was arrested, although the charges have since been dropped.
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