Barack Obama sought on Friday to defuse the first race row of his presidency, saying he regretted having said a white policeman acted "stupidly" in arresting a prominent black Harvard professor.
AFP - Barack Obama sought Friday to defuse the first race row of his presidency, saying he regretted having said a white policeman acted "stupidly" in arresting a black Harvard professor.
Obama, the nation's first African American president, spoke during a surprise appearance before reporters in the White House barely two hours after angry police in Cambridge, Massachusetts, demanded he say he was sorry for linking the professor's arrest to racial tensions.
Obama said he had phoned the arresting officer, Sergeant James Crowley, and expressed regret for "an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge police department or Sergeant Crowley specifically.
"I could have calibrated those words differently and I told this to Sergeant Crowley."
The row, which has the potential to torpedo Obama's carefully crafted image as the country's first post-racial president, started last week when police briefly detained Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates.
Gates was arrested after a neighbor saw him breaking into his house and mistakenly reported a burglary. An altercation followed in which Gates accused police of racist treatment and was charged with disorderly conduct.
Obama, who is a friend of Gates, made a rare foray into the political minefield of race relations, saying police acted "stupidly." He also raised the painful issue of police discrimination against non-whites.
It appeared that Obama's conciliatory words did much to defuse the situation.
In a statement late Friday, Cambridge police commissioner Robert Haas said Crowley was "so pleased to have had the opportunity to speak with the president."
City officials and the police department were "optimistic that we are moving forward toward a resolution. We continue to reflect and learn from this incident. I wish to share our sincere appreciation to President Obama for his graciousness," Haas said.
Nevertheless, the White House refused to characterize Friday's statement as a formal apology, and Obama stuck by the substance of his original comments made at a press conference on Wednesday.
"The fact that this has become such a big issue I think is indicative of the fact that race is still a troubling aspect of our society," Obama said.
"Be mindful of the fact that because of our history, because of the difficulties of the past, you know, African Americans are sensitive to these issues," he urged.
"And even when you've got a police officer who has a fine track record on racial sensitivity, interactions between police officers and the African American community can sometimes be fraught with misunderstanding."
He also said both the police and Gates had "overreacted."
Obama, who is battling to get his radical healthcare reforms passed by a wary Congress with skeptics on both side of the house, appeared hopeful that he had put the distraction behind him.
In lighthearted tones, he revealed he had discussed having both Crowley and Gates for a "beer here in the White House. We don't know if that's scheduled yet, but we may put that together."
He acknowledged that the row had completely overshadowed his huge battle on healthcare.
"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," Obama said.
Rich Hanley, communications professor at Quinnipiac University, said the row was potentially "extraordinarily damaging to Obama's agenda."
"This is now going to dominate coverage and... will have an influence on his agenda and may well galvanize the Republican opposition," Hanley said.
"It's not only a racial, but a law and order issue, and the Republicans own that issue."
However, the Democratic president received one early thumbs up from an opponent -- senior Republican Newt Gingrich.
"It was very wise of President Obama to call the policeman he had criticized in his press conference. It was a classy way to apologize," Gingrich said through a Twitter message.
Date created : 2009-07-25