From President to Pundit

Why Obama should have stayed quiet about the arrest of Henry Louis Gates


Barack Obama got to be president because he had qualities Americans were yearning for after the bitter tumult of the Bush years. He was calm, sober, fair-minded, and guided by facts rather than emotions. He didn't jump to conclusions, he didn't ignore inconvenient evidence, and he didn't blunder into messes. That was the guy we elected last year, and right now, a lot of people miss him.

He was absent Wednesday when a reporter asked his views on the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates. At first, Obama sounded like himself. He acknowledged that Gates is a friend, "so I may be a little biased here" and pointed out helpfully, "I don't know all the facts."

That set him up nicely to forgo further comment on a matter that had nothing to do with the topic of his news conference (health care reform) or his responsibilities. Or, rather, it should have.

Instead, he proceeded to rake one Cambridge police sergeant over the coals for having "acted stupidly," before proceeding to place the episode in the context of the "long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately."

With that, Obama went from president to pundit. We've all heard speculation that Sarah Palin is aiming at a TV career on Fox News. Maybe Obama has his eye on Rachel Maddow's chair.

The Gates story is familiar by now. He arrived home to find his front door jammed. He tried to force the door, before going to the back and using his key. Meanwhile, a neighbor called police to report a burglary.

Sgt. James Crowley arrived to find a man inside. Gates says he complied with a request for identification but was rebuffed when he asked for the cop's name and badge number. Crowley said Gates initially refused to provide an ID and became loud, insulting, and verbally threatening. In the end, Crowley arrested him for disorderly conduct, a charge that was dropped, and Gates accused him of racial bias.

We can all agree with Obama on one thing—he wasn't there and didn't know all the facts. The White House press office tells me the president didn't talk to Gates or read the police report before commenting. Nonetheless, he rushed to conclude that the cop was not only dead wrong but possibly racist. Which sounds like the kind of unthinking snap judgment that leads to racial profiling.

No one acquainted with the periodic outrages committed by bad cops in Chicago and elsewhere can doubt that law enforcement personnel sometimes grossly abuse their powers. Crowley would not have been the first officer who was ever gratuitously belligerent or insulting.

But we can't really know whom to believe. Gates said he couldn't have screamed at the cop, because of a "bronchial infection." But a photo of Gates in handcuffs looks like a man yelling, not nursing his vocal cords. A neighbor who witnessed the incident told the Boston Herald, "When police asked him for ID, Gates started yelling, 'I'm a Harvard professor. … This is racial profiling.'"

Crowley, who teaches a police academy class on racial profiling, is an unlikely villain. On the other hand, it's hard to imagine the erudite literary scholar bellowing, as the cop said he did, "I'll speak with your mama outside."

Figuring out if Gates or Crowley was at fault, or if both were, is a task a jury hearing hours of testimony might find difficult. It's not something a man with Obama's responsibilities should waste his time on. But if he can't provide an informed opinion, he should do the cop and the public the favor of providing no opinion.

The Obama of the campaign knew the importance of being careful, deliberate, and circumspect. After enduring a president who was often just the opposite, the American people also recognized those as valuable traits, and probably hope to see them again in this White House.

Press secretary Robert Gibbs ridiculed the notion that Obama has the option in "nationally televised news conferences to pass on questions like it was a game show." But Friday Gibbs said the president regretted fueling a distraction.

He ought to. Fueling distractions is the job of TV pundits. And in the future Obama might draw on the wisdom of a predecessor, Calvin Coolidge, who attested, "I have never been hurt by anything I didn't say."