By Sam Youngman - 07/24/09 02:46 PM EDT
President Obama made a surprise appearance at the White House press briefing on Friday to address the controversy over his comments about a racially charged arrest in Cambridge, Mass.
Members of the Cambridge police union and representatives of other local area police unions, joined by Sgt. James Crowley, called on Obama Friday to apologize for saying officers "acted stupidly" for arresting black Harvard scholar and Obama friend Henry Louis Gates Jr. at his home after a report of a break-in and ensuing disturbance when officers asked Gates for identification.
Obama said the five-minute conversation confirmed that Crowley is a good man and that the sergeant and the professor are "two decent people," though he still believes that Crowley and Gates both overreacted. The president further said that he contributed to the "ratcheting up" of the story.
Obama said it was "unfortunate" that his word choice "maligned" the police department and Crowley.
"And I could have calibrated my words differently."
Still, Obama disagreed with assertions that he shouldn't have weighed in on a local matter and called the subsequent "media frenzy" unfortunate.
"There are some who say as president I shouldn't have stepped into this at all because I'm president and it's a local issue," the president added. "The fact that it's become such a big issue is indicative of the fact that race is still a troubling aspect of our society."
Obama added that there was a discussion on the call about the president, Crowley and Gates getting together for a beer at the White House, but "I don't know if that's been scheduled yet."
He joked that Crowley asked him how to get the press off his lawn.
"I informed him that I can't get the press off my lawn," Obama said. "He informed me that my lawn is bigger than his lawn."
Obama acknowledged how the comment at the end of Wednesday's primetime press conference on healthcare has knocked the message off course.
"I don't know if you've noticed, but nobody's been paying much attention to healthcare," Obama said.
The Cambridge officers said they were voicing unified support for Crowley in the wake of the press conference.
"His remarks were obviously misdirected but made it worse yet by suggesting somehow this case should remind us of a history of racial abuse by law enforcement," Dennis O'Connor, president of the Cambridge Police Superior Officers Association, said at the news conference.
"Whatever may be the history, we deeply resent the implications and reject any suggestion that in this case or any other case that they've allowed a person's race to direct their activities," O'Connor said. "However, we hope [Obama and Gov. Deval Patrick] will reflect upon their past comments and apologize to the men and women of the Cambridge Police Department ."
Gibbs would not confirm whether Obama had apologized to Crowley. Obama did not say whether he had or not in his Friday statement to the press corps.
"My hope is that as a consequence of this event, this ends up being what's called a teachable moment," Obama said.