WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama backed down on Friday from a statement that police had “acted stupidly” in arresting a black scholar in a racially charged case that was rapidly becoming a distraction for Obama.
The president made a surprise appearance in the White House press briefing room shortly after he spoke by phone to Cambridge, Massachusetts, police Sgt. James Crowley, who had arrested Henry Louis Gates, a prominent scholar of African-American studies at Harvard, last week.
“Because this has been ratcheting up and I obviously helped to contribute ratcheting it up, I wanted to make clear in my choice of words I think I unfortunately gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge Police Department or Sgt. Crowley specifically,” Obama said. “And I could have calibrated those words differently.”
Crowley suggested Obama invite him and Gates, to the White House for a peace-making beer, and a plan was in the works to do so, Obama said.
Obama later called Gates, had a positive discussion, told him about his phone call with Crowley and invited him to join Crowley at the White House in the near future, the White House said.
The case quickly became a media frenzy, with Cambridge police in an uproar, Gates accusing Crowley of racist behavior and threatening a lawsuit.
For Obama, who took office as the first U.S. black president in January. the incident was a distraction when his signature legislative priority, a healthcare overhaul, was stalling in the U.S. Congress.
Obama said he hoped the event would end up being a “teachable moment, where all of us instead of pumping up the volume spend a little more time listening to each other” and improve race relations “instead of flinging accusations.”
“Lord knows we need it right now — because over the last two days as we’ve discussed this issue, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but nobody has been paying much attention to health care,” he said.
The incident began last week when police received a call from a neighbor that a man appeared to be breaking into the Gates’ house.
Gates, who returned home from a week in China to discover his front door jammed, entered his house through the back door. Police say Gates became belligerent when they went to the house and spoke with him inside.
At a news conference on Wednesday night, Obama weighed in on the case, saying the Cambridge, Massachusetts, police had “acted stupidly.”
Obama pointed out that blacks and members of other minority groups tend to be stopped more frequently by U.S. police officers than whites.
Until Friday, Obama and the White House had defended Obama’s remarks. The police union stoked tensions further, firing back at Obama.
“President Obama said that the actions of the Cambridge Police Department were stupid and linked the event to a history of racial profiling in America,” Sgt. Dennis O’Connor, president of the Cambridge Police Superior Officers Association, said at a news conference in Cambridge.
“The facts of this case suggest that the president used the right adjective but directed it at the wrong party,” he said.
With the incident threatening to escalate, Obama chose to engage in some damage control.
He did not say he had apologized to Crowley, but his words were regretful. Obama said his impression of Crowley was that he was an “outstanding police officer and a good man, and that was confirmed in the phone conversation. And I told him that.”
He said his choice of words had unfortunately given an impression “that I was maligning the Cambridge police department or Sergeant Crowley specifically. And I could have calibrated those words differently. And I told this to Sergeant Crowley.”
Obama said he continued to believe that there was an overreaction in arresting Gates and that he also believed that Gates “probably overreacted as well.”
Additional reporting by Scott Malone and David Alexander; Editing by David Storey