What I Hope a Fly on the Wall in the White House Would Hear

08/28/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Michael J. O'Neil President, O'Neil Associates Public Opinion Research and Host "The Think Tank" KTAR 92.3FM Phoenix

I was thrilled to see the President invite Sgt. Crowley and Professor Gates to the White House for a beer.

While this conclave of three Alpha Males could become the temporary testosterone capital of the world, I have genuine optimism for what may transpire. The more I consider who all three of these men are, the more they strike me as big, principled men. The respective careers strongly suggest that each will really wish to do the right thing.

I have pondered this issue further since writing about it a few days ago and concluded that

1. furthering the argument about Who is Right will get us precisely nowhere, and
2. in a very real sense each participant's actions was understandable given their own history and perspectives, even if their resultant actions were imperfect.

Each of these three men needs to abandon the quest to prove that Their Position was Right; no one will learn anything by attempting to convince the other of the reasonableness of their own position. Yet each could learn quite a bit by considering how that encounter was likely viewed by the other participant.

My fantasy conversation:

GATES: Sgt. Crowley, I have given a lot of thought to our encounter. While I was initially furious and outraged at what I saw as an aggressive intrusion into my house. I have since had time to think and consider what this encounter might have looked like from your perspective.

I now know that you were responding to a 911 call for a possible burglary. I also know that as a police sergeant, you are primarily a supervisor, and didn't have to respond personally to any call for service. You chose to take this call, probably because you were the closest to the scene of what could well have been a burglary in progress. That is to be commended.

As you approached my house, I realize that your sole goal was to protect me, my family, and my property. Under these circumstances, any reasonable man would approach the house with some caution, knowing that there could be personal danger if a burglar were present. On reflection, your request that I step out to the porch was motivated by concern for my safety as well as your own. You did not then know who else might be in the house, and you knew that even I might not be aware of an intruder in my house. I know that your request that I produce identification was to ensure that I was who I claimed to be. And that, even after I identified myself, you did not know for certain whether the house was also occupied by a burglar, without my knowledge.

I was angry. At the time I felt this anger was justified. Among other things, I attempted to intimidate you by alluding to my stature in the community and by attempting to call the Chief of Police directly. On reflection, this was wrong.

Knowing more about who you are and what you have done has helped me understand how you may have interpreted our encounter.

There is, indeed, a history behind the encounters between white police officers and black citizens. And white police officers have not always behaved as they should in such encounters. I know that you have spent much of a distinguished career studying and analyzing, among other things, the racial history that underlies such encounters.

As a police officer I have to act in real time. I can't do much to rectify past wrongs--except not to repeat them. In retrospect, as one who has not only been a police officer, but has instructed other police officers on issues of racial profiling, I think I could have cut you a bit more slack when I encountered your angry response to my requests. While your behavior once you followed me outside might have met a technical definition of disturbing the peace, I clearly had discretion to ignore what was, at most, a borderline transgression. In retrospect, perhaps I should have done so. In any event, I am pleased that the charges have been dropped. Pursuing this matter further would have served no constructive purpose.

And, while I don't think I personally caused your anger, I can see how the overall situation may have triggered it. Blacks in America have too often been targeted due to their race and our encounter could have appeared to you at the time as one such situation.

OBAMA: As a black man who grew up in this country, I have felt the impact of racial profiling personally. I am human; and the initial report of this incident triggered a visceral reaction in me. And because Skip Gates is a personal friend, I was disposed to believe his version of the events.

I did not expect to be asked a question about this incident at the end of my news conference on health care. When I was, my initial response was that we should not prejudge an event until all the facts were in. I should have taken my own advice and stopped at this point. Perhaps because of my personal history, and perhaps because Skip Gates is a personal friend, I then proceeded to violate my own admonition. As President of the United States, I should not have commented on this event, and especially not before all the facts were known. I did, and that was a mistake. And I regret how my comment may have further inflamed this controversy.

COMMENT: Three decent men. Each human, each subject to human imperfections. We could argue ad infinitum the nuances of all the human reactions taken in this case. But can we learn anything from them?