President Obama may have made the biggest mistake of his young presidency in Wednesday's press conference. Indeed, he may already be wishing he hadn't taken "one last question" from his hometown Chicago reporter Lynn Sweet.
It's funny that he would find himself in an awkward -- that could metastasize into a disastrous -- position by responding to Sweet. She's a journalist favorable to Obama and her question could hardly be considered a "gotcha" query. She asked about the well-publicized arrest of black Harvard Prof. Henry Louis "Skip" Gates in his own home. "What does that incident say to you and what does it say about race relations in America?" she asked.
Historically, Obama has managed to smoothly navigate the treacherous intersection of race and politics -- primarily by assiduously not assigning blame to the various characters in America's long-running social drama. The finest example of this was his ability to turn the Jeremiah Wright controversy into a teachable moment and a fantastic speech.
To his detriment, Obama didn't do that Wednesday. Perhaps it was because, as he admitted, he was too close to the situation: "Skip Gates is a friend of mine, so maybe I'm a little biased. I don't know all the facts."
Uh oh. Danger!!! Stay away from this one, Mr. President. You don't want to go there! The correct answer is: "Since I don't know all the facts, I'm going to reserve judgment. I'm glad the charges were dropped and we can move on."
Instead, he plunged right in.
Though he put in the caveat, "I don't know...what role race played," the remainder of his response clearly demonstrated that Obama felt it played a significant role. Why else mention that he worked in the Illinois state legislature "on a racial profiling bill because there was indisputable evidence that blacks and Hispanics were being stopped disproportionately"?
In that context, his charge that the Cambridge police acted "stupidly" wasn't just unusually harsh coming from Mr. Cool. Rather, it seemed like an artful dodge: One gets the sense that Obama really wanted to say that it was racist, but realized that he couldn't in the end.
While he referred to "reports" of the incident, everything he cited put Gates in the best light. But there is indeed enough fog on both sides for there to be validity in the Cambridge police spokeswoman's statement that neither Gates nor the police officer had one of their best moments:
Cambridge police say they responded to the well-maintained two-story home after a woman reported seeing "two black males with backpacks on the porch," with one "wedging his shoulder into the door as if he was trying to force entry."
By the time police arrived, Gates was already inside. Police say he refused to come outside to speak with an officer, who told him he was investigating a report of a break-in.
"Why, because I'm a black man in America?" Gates said, according to a police report written by Sgt. James Crowley. The Cambridge police refused to comment on the arrest Monday.
Gates — the director of Harvard's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research — initially refused to show the officer his identification, but then gave him a Harvard University ID card, according to police.
"Gates continued to yell at me, accusing me of racial bias and continued to tell me that I had not heard the last of him," the officer wrote.
Gates said he turned over his driver's license and Harvard ID — both with his photos — and repeatedly asked for the name and badge number of the officer, who refused. He said he then followed the officer as he left his house onto his front porch, where he was handcuffed in front of other officers, Gates said in a statement released by his attorney, fellow Harvard scholar Charles Ogletree, on a Web site Gates oversees, TheRoot.com.
In short, there's way too much he-said/he-said in these two accounts for the President of the United States to make a categorical judgment on the behavior of the Cambridge police.
As a personal view, I might believe the police officer's behavior was excessive, perhaps even foolish. But, strange as it might seem, politicians -- and especially presidents -- often have less "freedom of speech" than the average citizen. A mayor, for example, often has to take care not to prejudge sensitive cases involving the police -- just so a potential jury pool isn't tainted. The words of a chief executive -- mayor, governor or president -- carry a lot of weight. Because of their unique status in executing the laws, they have to show the broadest respect for the law itself. That means adopting a neutrality on both the prosecution of the law, while upholding the belief in the concept of innocent until proven guilty.
In that context, the chief executive of the United States telling a local police force that it acted "stupidly" -- when he himself admits that he wasn't there -- is, well, stupid.
It's understandable that the president was upset to see his friend -- a respected African-American academic -- was portrayed all across the country, humiliated in handcuffs. But, despite those personal feelings, the president's "public" voice must always take, well, precedence. In siding, instinctively with Gates (and, by extension, against Officer Joseph Crowley), Obama forgot something that Chris Rock pointed out in his Bigger And Blacker concert:
Do you know who the most racist people are for real, the real most racist people?
Old black men.
You find a brother over .... l know you white people know an old black man.
You go, ''Willie at the job, he's so nice.'' Willie hates your guts.
There's nothing more racist than an old black man. You know why?
'Cause an old black man went through some real racism.
Indeed, that's actually a similar point that Obama made in his Philadelphia/Jeremiah Wright speech: "For the men and women of Reverend Wright's generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table."
That is the public intellectual Obama who, familiar with the full stage of American racial drama, could honestly imagine seeing a Skip Gates launch into a completely unfair verbal attack on the white police officer -- perhaps re-living a racial slight from his youth. Gates is only nine years younger than Wright. The public Obama could have seen both sides "acting stupidly."
Instead, by allowing his personal voice to seep into a presidential press conference, Barack Obama is playing with fire. As this writer noted a few days ago, Obama won the election (and the votes of millions of white voters) on the same premise as his predecessors -- that he would be the president of the entire country. His apparent willingness not to seem like he's holding a grudge against whites are a major reason for his personal popularity -- which has stayed high even as support for his policies have dropped recently.
This exchange could change that: His ill-considered response may send a signal to some neighborhoods across this nation. Their president didn't merely take the side of a fellow black man over a white one. He also took the side of a Harvard professor over Cambridge cops. He took the side of the intellectual over the blue-collar. The personal bias merges with those of race and class into what could be a very volatile combination.
And as this is rapidly becoming the memorable sound-bite of a press conference focused on health-care, President Obama will regret in the days and weeks ahead, that he was ever asked a question about Henry Louis Gates. Indeed, based on the White House's Thursday afternoon "clarification" of the president's remarks, he already is.
But it may be too late.