While watching the president's rambling press conference Wednesday, I was jolted out of a near snooze when he made a sharp comment, saying the Cambridge, Massachusetts police had behaved stupidly. I was excited, because Barack Obama usually plays to the middle ground. Not because he's a political centrist -- he's not -- but because it often appears he believes the best chance for achieving success is to offend the least many people possible.
That's why he wasn't my first choice last year in the primaries -- he was actually my fourth. I viewed him as the sort of guy who becomes frat president -- not so much to get the girls, but to be everyone's pal. A glad hander with an even temperament, a winning smile, soft-spoken, articulate and smart. A great trait to become president of the Harvard Law Review, but not the leader of the free world.
And so, because Obama measures his words about almost everything, I was intrigued when he finally said something direct and from his heart after someone asked him at the end of the press conference what he thought about the case of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, who'd been arrested in his home.
I liked the way Obama laid it out carefully, saying the initial stages seemed fine to him, when someone saw Gates in the dark from a distance trying to jimmy open the door of his Cambridge home. He said he didn't mind at all that the police were called to investigate and found Gates, who was already inside his home.
But at that point he said it should have ended, as the professor showed the officer his ID, indicating he actually lived there, and Obama earned a big hurray from me when he said that the police department acted "stupidly" when they arrested Gates.
He was right. The policeman, Sgt. James Crowley, was wrong. Yet, though Gates was released without being charged after four hours of what must have been a humiliating experience for a distinguished professor -- or any decent American -- mug shots, fingerprinting and the like -- Sgt. Crowley said he had done nothing for which to apologize, though the mayor of Cambridge did just that.
When the case became controversial -- lead stories by Brian Williams on NBC, Katie Couric on CBS, Charlie Gibson on ABC and reports on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC -- not to mention the inevitable replays on YouTube -- Obama suddenly softened his tone. It was as if he said, "Oh, my God, it doesn't matter that I was right, but this will take media space away from my health care issue, and I don't want to make people think I was playing favorites with people tied to my race."
Then, when the tweets on Twitter became deafening he almost completely backtracked during a surprise appearance before the White House Press Corps. He said he was wrong for what he'd said about the Cambridge Police department and Sgt. Crowley, insisted that Crowley was an "outstanding police officer" and blamed himself for ratcheting up the incident by his comment. He further told the press he'd called Gates and Crowley and invited them both to the White House to have a beer for a kumbaya moment. Instead of this mealy-mouthed reversal, why couldn't the president man up and say, "You know, I don't have to explain myself. I said what I meant and I stand by what I said."
Even though the facts of this case are still as mysterious as the Michael Jackson toxicological reports, it's clear that had Professor Gates done anything truly illegal the police would have been champing at the bit to get the info to us. If Professor Gates had pulled out a gun or brandished a cane or slugged Sgt. Crowley in the mouth it would have been assault and grounds for arrest. No such charge has been made.
So since it is just conjecture as to what happened, I'll explore the most vile possibility. Perhaps Professor Gates is a hothead and quick tempered. Perhaps he was so repulsed by the thought that he was being questioned in an accusatory manner -- after having given the officer proof that he lived in the house -- that he -- hold onto your hats -- said something nasty. Maybe it was more than nasty -- a vulgar epithet -- maybe even used the "F" word or combined it with the word honkie.
When I was a kid I was taught, "Sticks and stones can break your bones, but names can never harm you." Was Sgt. Crowley never taught that? Not even in training for the Cambridge police force? How gutless of our president in his zeal to be neutral and not make waves to say that both Sgt. Crowley and Professor Gates overreacted. It doesn't matter whether Professor Gates overreacted. Such an overreaction is within his legal rights. It is not within Sgt. Crowley's legal rights to take advantage of the situation.
There was no reason for Professor Gates to be led off in handcuffs, whatever unpleasant thing he might have said to irritate Sgt. Crowley. The officer should have taken a deep breath and walked away. His powers as a policeman, which include being armed with a gun and a stick to beat someone back, do not entitle him to use the threat of physical force under color of authority when someone is exercising freedom of speech in his own home.
Even Sgt. Leon Lashley, an African American Cambridge police department colleague of Sgt. Crowley's, admitted that, while he supported Crowley's action (big surprise), it probably would have played out differently had he been the officer to arrive on the scene. When CNN's Anderson Cooper pressed Lashley as to why Gates was taken in -- whatever he'd said, it was in his house -- Lashley lamely responded that they were able to do so because Gates had walked outside the house. Cooper pressed further, saying Gates was on his porch and it was still his property. Lashley insisted that once out of the house, a hot exchange of words could then be viewed as disturbing the peace. That's a big stretch.
There is nothing about this case that doesn't smell phony, and the fact that our president won't stand behind his words when they become controversial makes me quite concerned about his future. It's still too early in his administration to point the finger of failure as partisan Republicans have done. But whether it's the timetable on our involvement in Iraq on which he's waffled, his health care deadline, on which he caved in to congressional forces wanting a delay or his still unfulfilled promise to gay Americans that he will eliminate the preposterous "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy -- that even many distinguished members of our military have lobbied against -- Obama just doesn't have the cojones to follow through unless he has a clear consensus. He is so afraid to offend and risk losing support that he refuses in fact to lead by setting the proper example.
The president says he has to be careful about what he says, because when he says something it gets a sizable reaction, and that's true. But in this case it deserved the media attention and exposed an outrageous happenstance that shouldn't be pooh-poohed and dispensed with over a couple of Miller Lites. The president shouldn't be so concerned about offending conservative elements of our society that he somehow compared Gates and Crowley's behavior as a simple case of two men overreacting. Even CNN's David Gergen said he was distressed about Obama's conclusion giving equal status to the men's wrongdoing.
I'll say it again. Gates has a right to scream at a policeman and tell him to get out of his house. You might not like it if he called Crowley a pig (and I'm not saying he did), but even if he had it's covered under the First Amendment. Crowley's "overreaction" went a lot farther than harmless name calling, forcibly taking Gates from his house like a common criminal. His deed was a helluva lot more consequential and an overreaching of the public trust invested in him as a police officer.
So, if this is another sizable sign of how our president is more concerned about his television "Q" rating than making meaningful change for the American people, Obama may well be a one-term president. My only hope is that if Obama can't get his act together by next year there will be a strong Democrat standing in the wings to go head to head with him in the 2012 primaries rather than the party giving him token support and in the process handing the country back to the Republicans.
In case you can't tell, I'm thoroughly disgusted with his actions today.
Michael Russnow's website is www.ramproductionsinternational.com