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July 31st, 2009
10:09 AM ET

Dear President Obama #193: A hard lesson from a teachable moment

Reporter's Note: I’m not a beer drinker. I’m a letter writer. So you know what I was doing yesterday shortly after the photo op.

Sgt. James Crowley and professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. sat down with the president and vice president Thursday.

Sgt. James Crowley and professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. sat down with the president and vice president Thursday.

Tom Foreman | Bio
AC360° Correspondent

Dear Mr. President,

You know that I try to be encouraging. You know that I try to give you the benefit of the doubt, just like I do most people. Read any one of my nearly 200 letters now, and you won’t find anything that suggests I am trying to make you or anyone else fail.

But wow! Did that photo op at the beer party look bad, or what? Seriously, you must have seen the tape by now and you have to be saying the same thing.

I’ve been around this business a long time, I’ve seen a lot of “media availabilities,” and I can think of precious few that ever looked so uncomfortable, contrived, and…well, painful.

Sitting at that bare table in the sunlight, it looked like you were stuck in some kind of garden party purgatory. The setup looked so miserable; I’m surprised even Biden came out. “Uh, gosh, sorry Mr. President, but I’ve got to go to…uh…Target to…uh…pick up some socks.” And that guy delivering the beers on a tray? If the idea is to make it look like a casual conversation among regular guys over some cold ones (and I’m pretty sure that was the goal) you can’t let us get pictures of something that looks like an episode of At Home in the Hamptons.

All right. I’ve gone on too long, and I don’t want to hurt your feelings. I have the impression that this whole business, from the minute you mentioned it during that press conference, has been some kind of crazy White House three-legged race to fix things and you just couldn’t get everyone in step.

Sometimes these things happen. Shake it off. Give Gibbs a stern talking to; put those pictures into some deep, forgotten file; and move on. I’ll take it on faith that your heart was in the right place, and that you really did want to carry forward the difficult discussion that America has been having about race. That is important work that we all need to be about, probably for many more decades.

But for heavens sake, don’t do it out in the garden again. Teachable moments are great. Laughable moments, not so much, unless you’re laughing too. My phone is always open for calls, unless you are going to invite me for beer…because I’ve seen that party. Ha!

Regards,

Tom

Find more of the Foreman Letters here.

soundoff (36 Responses)
  1. Kelly C. (physical therapist)

    I think it is wonderful that President Obama makes a point not to be pretentious, and I find it humorous that the media complains about having to suffer through boring and non-dramatic press conferences. For sure, this makes great fodder for the press. Having said that, when I look at that the picture taken of the now infamous Beer Party at the White House, my immediate observation is that those chairs and that table are WAY TOO LOW!!! I don't know who picked out that furniture, but regardless of whether it is from Target or Restoration Hardware, someone should have at least considered the height of whomever might be parking themselves on it for a rest in the garden. I'd predict that elevating the table and chairs about 4-inches would have made a BIG difference in both real and perceived discomforts around the situation. And it might have given everyone there slightly less of a back ache ~ including the media.

    Anyone need a physical therapist???

    August 3, 2009 at 4:00 am |
  2. elZorro

    'Teachable moment"?... Who was supposed to be the teacher, and who the students?!

    August 1, 2009 at 4:32 pm |
  3. Lori

    The world is becoming smaller and there is more opportunity for interactions between people of various backgrounds and beliefs. Differences can not be settled in court. Since we all see the same picture but have different perceptions of that, we can never fully agree on anything. We all have to learn how to be bigger and better people. We have to learn how to control our impulses or walk away and return to the table later with composure and compassion.

    Conversation is a wonderful gift. It is an opportunity to listen to another's perceptions and consider that input only for what it is. However ackward this seems, this is a picture of a second chance for mutual respect among intellegent and powerful men. This is a first step toward understanding differences. It shows the grace of all men involved. I can not remember seeing four more different people having a beer together before.

    August 1, 2009 at 1:10 pm |
  4. leonard john gunderson

    Think back on all the times you have seen the media show or reporting on the shooting of the black guy or the cops beating on the black guy. Leave it to the MEDIA!!! Cops and presidents do stupid things just like you and me. Just say I'll try to do better the rest of my life.

    August 1, 2009 at 10:50 am |
  5. KIM-TN

    The only people that "acted stupidly" in this situation was Gates and Obama!!!!

    August 1, 2009 at 8:30 am |
  6. Sam

    Obama does not have to apologize for anything. Crowley did act stupidly. There was no reason to arrest Gates.

    August 1, 2009 at 12:52 am |
  7. Juanita

    Why should either of them be sorry for what they said.First, we seem to have forgotten that the caller warned the police that the men had suitcases and could be workers or live there. Secondly, the caller did not mention two black men as the written report said nor according to the caller did she say anything to the officer at the scene. That, to me, is falsification of records. Thirdly, the professor did show his ID to prove that he resided at the address and fourth no where on the tapes did you hear the professor being loud and rude. I really think both of them probably provoked each other with their voice tone.

    July 31, 2009 at 11:44 pm |
  8. A. B. Sturgis

    As Americans are challenged by the evolution of the brain and
    nervous system, I observe a moving beyond blaming and
    defining one set of behaviors as right and the other wrong.

    I am well convinced that Obama's election and the desire
    for change is part of longing Americans have for a higher,
    deeper kind of thinking, a kind that understands diversity
    and beyond half brain thinking.

    I percieve a call for genuine dialogue, respect for different
    perceptions, and understanding of the human emotions
    that motivate and move us. We cannot understand and
    appreciate one another if we limit ourselves to analysis
    and comparison, or reacting in ways that are obsolete in
    our present time.

    July 31, 2009 at 10:56 pm |
  9. ML

    Agree 1000%. Way, way too contrived. They moved that table out there so the press could get their photos. And poor Prof. Gates and Sgt. Crowley were sweating in the hot DC summer in their dark suits and ties. It's the White House, for heaven's sake. You can't go in shirt sleeves. And if you want to have any meaningful talk, do it in private. Bad, bad, bad judgment here.

    July 31, 2009 at 8:45 pm |
  10. Prophetess and Pastor Neal

    “Races Statements and Hatred”
    Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer.

    You can stop man from making races statements but this will not change his heart.
    If those of us who say that we are the people of God, would take a stand and teach what God says about hatred, maybe people would repent/ chance their minds from this evil. (this is the Devil way of doing things).

    How Many Of Us know, if you hate your brother this is also murder says, The Word of God and you will go to hell, if you do not repent. This is true and can save you if you believe it. I cannot understand how so many church goes have this same problem.

    1 John 3:14 Says, We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren. He that loveth not his brother abideth in death. 15 Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer: and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him.)

    Ecclesiastes 9:1 For all this I considered in my heart even to declare all this, that the righteous, and the wise, and their works, are in the hand of God: no man knoweth either love or hatred by all that is before them.
    1 John 4:20 Says, If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen? 1 John 4:8 He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.

    July 31, 2009 at 7:00 pm |
  11. Yvadne

    Agreeing to disagree is a start now let's not loose momentum. Talk about it amongst others you may have never considered having the conversation with.

    July 31, 2009 at 6:16 pm |
  12. shane

    We all make mistakes,maybe we should look in the book of James in the bible and read.. he says..... chapter 1 verse 19 King James Bible
    Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath(slow to anger)... True Christians know this.. you can also comment on you tube shane1970thomas ... plenty of insightful videos there ...

    July 31, 2009 at 2:51 pm |
  13. Carolyn -Austin TX

    What would be the most valuable lesson taught is for these to gentlemen to lead by example in acknowledging, as Prof. Gates did, the reality of the situation of the other person in this incident, and stating publicly that the other had the right to behave as they did, based on the realities of their positions. Neither of them were in the wrong. It was simply a mistaken perspective on both parts.

    July 31, 2009 at 2:09 pm |
  14. Carolyn form Austin TX

    I don't think any of those involved in this situation need apologize. They were all sincere in and right in their own paradigm. What is needed, as the president has stated, is for people to see and acknowledge the rightful perspective of each other and strive to diminish the wrongful differences. I do think each incident has to be addressed on it's own merit.

    Each of the men involved should make his hardest attempt at recognizing and understanding the other's situation, ethics, views rather than conveying their own. Self interest -even under the guise of being for a large group – is still in the end SELF interest.

    July 31, 2009 at 2:03 pm |
  15. Fernando

    I'm almost sure that Gates didn't shut-up while the officer what at his house and was uncooperative, and that put him in all this trouble.
    And he is so stubborn that he won't admit that all this trouble was cause by his attitude. That thing about educated Harvard professor is relative. If I'm not wrong, some days ago they detain some rabbis for selling human organs in the black market.
    The officer wasn't sure if somebody else was inside the house and didn't want to leave Gates by himself. If he had leave too soon, and somebody was inside the house, the officer will be accuse of being a bad policeman. He had to investigate as much as possible.

    July 31, 2009 at 12:16 pm |
  16. sassc shakoor

    Tom....You have much company in Hater Nation. It is apparent that you and relative constituents can't appreciate a format for diplomacy.

    Our President, ( He is yours' whether you like it or not ) allotted time from His rigorous schedule to mediate a very hostile issue that has plagued America since slavery. Historically, this mayhem was called "lynching". Prevalently, this aggressive bigotry is called "profiling" a race of people that built The White House.

    Given your chance to arbitrate this pathetic confrontation....."What would you do?"

    A beer amongst gentlemen has ebbed the tide of wars and perhaps formulated alliances that has extended the olive branch with a resolve of mutual integrity as a salutation.

    Blessed is the peacemaker; therein, clearly Mr. Obama is an advocate of peace amongst all men. Mr. Biden's presence emulates the pleas for a better America.

    Many of your calibre should re-evaluate what and who defines the essence of diplomacy because you and your legion of haters don't have a clue.

    A generous glass of water will quench the hell that is spewed out of the mouths of adversity. Surely, a keg of beer will make merry the civil liberties that Congressman Gates was denied and the oath that Sgt Crowley, violated.

    How do you define the Constitution, Tom?

    July 31, 2009 at 12:03 pm |
  17. Howard R. Debs

    I have been in the communications field for over 40 years, and am a recipient of the Distinguished Achievement Award from the Educational Press Association of America. Certainly from a strictly communications standpoint, the visual "message" sent in the "beer garden" aftermath of all of this, more served to aggravate then smooth the situation. I posted an article on my blog titled: “President Obama and language used stupidly” shortly after his now “notorious” comment at his most recent press conference. The thrust of my piece, focusing on the communications issues surrounding his comment is an analysis of the reasons why his verbiage was so negatively received granting that ” Speaking extemporaneously, even with advance preparation and briefing, does not give much time for reflection ahead of utterance”. Nonetheless, “There are a number of words which in any language are “charged” with emotion – “stupid” and its variations are in such a lexicon. ” This is “a teachable moment” according to President Barack Obama. I agree. What is one of the lessons to be learned? Choose your words carefully. Now we can add, choose your photo-opportunities carefully. I am beginning to unfortunately see a slippage in acumen on the part of the President's communications team. One can only hope it is not a trend!

    July 31, 2009 at 11:46 am |
  18. c,ca

    Yes, I agree. Obama 'acted stupidly' in his response to this situation. It's funny that you mentioned the waiter.......... I thought that moment stood out like a sore thumb, too.

    Who came out of this looking good? The cop. He handled his post-party news conference very well.

    Gates still came off like a pompous a$$, who acted like a spoiled two-year old.

    Obama and Biden looked ridiculous, pretending to enjoy their cheap-o brand beer while kickin it with the guys. Please!

    July 31, 2009 at 11:36 am |
  19. Ikaika

    Mr. President,

    I didn't think you did anything wrong by saying what you thought. I also believe that you set up the meeting at the White House in good faith, and that it went as well as could be expected. There are still those who are trying to rlp you apart in their reports, letters, and whatever else – par for the course. Offering you a handshake for all that you're doing.

    For those asking, "What did we learn?". We learned that people do not always get along. We learned that we will not always agree with another person on what they say or do. We learned that racism still exists in our great country (even though the initial incident was not race based), less so than 50 years ago, but still exists – but most of you knew that already. I learned that there are still many people who are so full of rage and hate that they will stop at nothing to destroy a person who they dislike or disagree with.

    So, President Obama, there are those who hate you with a vengeance, nothing new there, just keep doing what you're doing.

    July 31, 2009 at 11:36 am |
  20. Emily W, Noblesville, IN

    @lampe Agreeing to disagree is a lesson many people have yet to learn. We can't all be expected to come to an agreement on everything, or anything for that matter. People will always disagree and agreeing to disagree is a way to show that you respect the other person's freedom to have an opinion different from yours.

    July 31, 2009 at 11:28 am |
  21. Glenis

    What bothers me more, if why the need was to have this meeting in the first place.. This is so a non issue and not worthy of the presidents input or time. Maybe he felt 'responsible' due to his misspeak to calm the waters. By Monday this is old news until relection time.

    July 31, 2009 at 11:23 am |
  22. VITA ZEMAITIS

    I am also a letter writer and like to comment. The question is, does anybody read them? How can you tell?

    July 31, 2009 at 11:20 am |
  23. mumofcolor

    I am just seeing this photo now. I imagine this arrangement is because of the professor being locked out of his house the police called on him for the racial profiling. completely agree. But why him getting the President of the US to visit w/ him about this outrage of racial profiling. If u want to make an example of good racial profiling take a young black guy pulled over for no reason. No drugs involved not even alcohol just getting pulled over because their black . use that as an expample not a professor. A low-income hard working young black family thats what needs to be stopped.

    July 31, 2009 at 11:19 am |
  24. Shilpee Shrestha

    I believe, they did not say sorry to each other.

    Not a good example for a teachable moment. There are so many other incidents that we can learn from.

    July 31, 2009 at 11:13 am |
  25. Marcia

    Hopefully President Obama "learned" to stay out of things like this in the future. This is an incident he should not have commented on in the first place.

    July 31, 2009 at 11:08 am |
  26. Vivien Wolsk, NYC

    I think there is a male bonding ritual/contest that usually follows the beer. That tree looks like a good bet.

    July 31, 2009 at 11:07 am |
  27. Jeanette

    This was nothing but a promotion by the Presidents advisors to help cover up his mistake. Neither one of the people involved has changed their minds and certainly don't intend to. Both think they are right.

    I am glad the officer did not apologize for something that was not intended in the first place. Too much testosterone involved and since this is what Gates does for a living, race is the first thing he thought of.

    What he didn't know is that this officer is involved in the same thing to fight racial profiling. Time for it to be out of the news.

    July 31, 2009 at 11:07 am |
  28. mel1865

    Enough already! Stop picking at the scab of race relations. Come up with forward looking ideas; like we all thought you would. Maybe then the true healing will begin.

    July 31, 2009 at 10:59 am |
  29. Brandi E

    I couldn't agree with you more. This was painful to watch. I really feel Obama should have stayed out of this issue.

    July 31, 2009 at 10:53 am |
  30. R White

    Did officer Crowley say he was sorry to Professor Gates? Theres a question. I bet you've never had the police arrest you for going in your own house have you RL Wellman? I rest my case.

    July 31, 2009 at 10:52 am |
  31. POW!

    Why do they have to apologize? Sgt. Crowley arrested a man in his own home for no good reason....don't tell me u wouldve played it cool if a police officer came into your home and accused you of breaking in to it. President Obama doesn't owe anyone an apology for voicing his opinion...just like President Bush doesn't, Presiden Clinton doesn't, and any other government official. Crowley couldve handled it better and Gates could have as well but Crowley is no victim. No apology needed.

    July 31, 2009 at 10:52 am |
  32. caribqueen15

    Hello Anderson Cooper,

    I have much respect for your type of journalism. You are the only one that comes close to delivering reports that do not inject as much of your biases in the pieces you put forth. There is still room for improvement. I chose to post this comment on your site:

    “My life was about to change within the 18 minutes that I left my apt to meet with the seller of a car!”

    RACIAL PROFILING IS REAL! And IT WILL HAPPEN AGAIN!

    I personally, experienced racial profiling as recent as April, 2009. I am a mother, and I have a son, a sophomore at the UT, Austin.

    A police officer came up to my car on foot demanding my driver’s license in a parking lot in Cedar Park Austin. No siren warning, he did not follow me with his patrol car, and as if from no where he approached on FOOT and began banging on the driver's side glass window. When I looked up, he did not look like an officer. I felt threatened and asked why? He did not declare who he is/was therefore; I did not give him my driver’s license. I continued filing through my purse for the phone number of the man I was going to meet. He stood looking and making comments “there is your driver’s license”. I kept doing what I was doing. Then he ordered me out of my car “step out of your car!”
    I was detained while he rifled through my purse. He took my DL and he was not satisfied he wanted Insurance, “How can I get you insurance when you have me in handcuffs ?”
    When I asked to make a phone call to my family he prevented me from making a phone call to my family, “YOU ARE NOT GOING TO CALL ANYONE, THIS WILL ESCALATE”, he called more police.

    Lots of people came out of sandwich shops and started to look while I was handcuffed, I did not commit a crime, and his excuse was I did not put on my turn signal! It was the biggest sham, can you imagine me within 18 minutes of leaving my apt to go visit a Samsung engineer who was about to sell his 1993 White Kia to me, my whole life was about to slip out of my hands because a Cedar park police officer approached my car, with me sitting in it searching through my purse for the telephone number of the engineer?.

    My entire life was about to be changed by a police man who felt I was nicely dressed in a knit turtle neck magenta sweater, levis and sitting in a "cosmetically challenged 1989 Honda Civic" that belongs to my frugal teen aged son? Yes, He put me through all of these horrors and violated my personal rights by rifling through my purse, my glove compartment and was PISSEDOFF when he found out that I had insurance. His comments "Pay the ticket"! I remarked, I’ll see you in court!

    He had no valid reason to ticket me, I did not commit a crime, and I was accused of not putting on my turn signal while exiting the free way. That was his charge and it was not true. He never followed me with his patrol car, never turned on his siren, never stopped me at the location of his so called charge.
    AND WAIT here is another excuse on which you can be PROFILED while DRIVING BLACK. “your license plat light is not working"

    I went to court and I told this hurtful story, BEARING MY EMOTIONS AND HUMILIATION to the judge about POLICE PROFILING, the white court clerks were aghast! Their verbal balks suggested that it could not have happened to me. RACIAL PROFILING IS A CRIME AGAINST BLACKS AND OTHER PEOPLE OF COLOR – ARE VIEWED AS LIABILITIES!

    July 31, 2009 at 10:50 am |
  33. Anita C

    Hi Anderson,
    I'm sick of this "Beer Summit" With all the problems with alcoholism in the United States, we now have the President endorsing it.
    Why couldn't they have had a pizza luncheon, if they wanted to keep it casual, and drink coffee, tea or soda????? And the constant casual attire is not appreciated either. How about dressing like a President !!
    Also, I love you on Regis and Kelly!!!!!

    July 31, 2009 at 10:49 am |
  34. lampe

    If this was a teaching moment, could someone please tell me what was learned? Seems to me all that they did was agree to disagree.

    July 31, 2009 at 10:37 am |
  35. RLWellman

    Did President Obama or professor Gates say they were sorry for what they said to officer Crowley? No! Why? Because neither of them is sorry for what they said.

    July 31, 2009 at 9:41 am |