Obama convenes 'beer summit'

After days of speculation, President Barack Obama drank beers with Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cambridge, Mass., police Sgt. James Crowley at the White House on Thursday to cool a racial controversy that dominated the past couple of weeks.

Obama tried downplaying the event as “three folks having a drink at the end of the day.”

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But few run-of-the-mill happy hours attract television crews, feed news scrolls or feature the commander in chief sucking down suds with two men who set off a national debate on race that interrupted the administration’s push for healthcare reform.

Even before they touched glasses, we were told what they would be drinking, who would be accompanying the three men — family, friends and a few lawyers — and that there would be no food served in the Rose Garden.

But there were a few surprises. Vice President Joe Biden joined the group. He had a Buckler, a non-alcoholic beer.

The other big surprise? Gates had a Sam Adams light, according to the pool report, instead of the planned Red Stripe. Obama had a Bud Light and Crowley a Blue Moon, as was expected.

Immediately after the meeting, the president released a statement thanking the men for their attendance.

“Even before we sat down for the beer, I learned that the two gentlemen spent some time together listening to one another, which is a testament to them,” Obama said. “I have always believed that what brings us together is stronger than what pulls us apart. I am confident that has happened here tonight, and I am hopeful that all of us are able to draw this positive lesson from this episode.”

Crowley, in a news conference after the meeting, described the discussion as "cordial," "productive," and "frank," but he didn't go into its details.

"We have all agreed that it is important to look forward rather than backward," Crowley said. "Issues important to all of us will form the basis of discussion between Prof. Gates and me in days and weeks to come."

Crowley said that he and Gates have a plan to meet again so that they can learn from each other, but Crowley wouldn't say where they would meet.

Crowley said both of them acknowledged their different perspectives, and that Gates was receptive to his viewpoint as a police officer. He said they will speak over the phone in the coming days.

When asked about the president's role in the discussion, Crowley said that Obama "provided the beer" and contributed "a small part." Crowley added that the president's main role was to bring him and Gates together.

All this came two weeks after Crowley arrested Gates for “disorderly conduct” after responding to an alleged break-in at Gates’s home. Obama didn’t help cool the debate initially, suggesting a week later that Crowley had “acted stupidly” in arresting Gates.

But the president backed off his initial comments, saying both men could have resolved the situation with cooler heads, and called them to try and tamp down the firestorm. The result was an invitation for beers at his pad to smooth over any lingering hard feelings.

The happy hour challenged the president’s flagging bid to reform the U.S. healthcare system for news coverage, attracting a minor media frenzy over the details of the meeting, down to each participant’s choice of beer.

The meeting marked what the White House hopes is an end to the controversy.

But as late as Thursday afternoon, the White House had struggled to explain how the meeting would make for the “teachable moment” on race the president had hoped would come about from his speaking out on the issue.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was grilled by reporters during his daily press briefing over how the meeting would lend lessons when it took place behind closed doors and Obama was not expected to speak on its content.

“I don’t want to get ahead of what may or may not be talked about,” Gibbs said of the meeting’s contents.

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Obama on Thursday said the sit-down would provide an “opportunity to listen to each other” in a more controlled and relaxed environment, and at a distance from the heated moment.

The story of the Gates-Crowley meeting proved its staying power throughout the week, first trumping the president’s healthcare push at last week’s news conference and again competing for coverage with the ongoing negotiations to craft preliminary healthcare reform legislation in the House and Senate.

For his part, during brief remarks about the “beer summit” — a term at which the president took light jabs — Obama said that he was “fascinated with the fascination about this evening.”

But the attention to the meeting’s minute details continued unabated; when the White House announced it’d moved the get-together from the White House picnic table to the Rose Garden, the news was relayed almost instantaneously on Twitter and cable news networks’ scrolls.

Walter Alarkon contributed to this report

This story was updated July 31, 2009 at 8:50 p.m.