WASHINGTON – With mugs of beer and a few minutes of conversation, President Barack Obama tried to pull himself and the nation beyond an uproar over race, sitting on his big back lawn with the black professor and the white policeman whose dispute had ignited a week of fierce debate.
Under the canopy of a magnolia tree Thursday evening, a shirt-sleeved Obama joined the other players in a story that had knocked the White House off message: Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cambridge, Mass., police Sgt. James Crowley. Vice President Joe Biden was also with them on a Rose Garden patio.
The men were seen chatting with each other, each with a mug of beer. The media were stationed far away, out of earshot.
Although Obama had invited Crowley and Gates as part of what he called a "teachable moment" for the nation, it wasn't quite reachable for the masses. The coverage allowed the public to get the we've-come-together photos and video footage that the White House wanted, while keeping the discussion private among the men.
Crowley and Gates, in dark suits for the highly anticipated meeting, seemed more formal than Obama and Biden, who had ditched their coats in the early evening. The president nibbled on snacks and was seen laughing at one point. The media were escorted away after roughly two minutes.
A short time earlier from the Oval Office, Obama had done what his aides had been doing for days: lowering expectations.
"I noticed this has been called the 'Beer Summit.' It's a clever term, but this is not a summit, guys," Obama told reporters. "This is three folks having a drink at the end of the day, and hopefully giving people an opportunity to listen to each other. And that's really all it is. This is not a university seminar."