WASHINGTON -- Trying to tamp down an uproar over race, President Barack Obama said Friday he used an unfortunate choice of words in commenting on the arrest of black scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. and could have "calibrated those words differently."
The president said he had telephoned the white policeman who arrested Gates, and he said the conversation confirmed his belief that the officer was a good man and an outstanding officer.
Obama said later that he had spoken to Gates as well.
The president caused a stir when he said at a prime-time news conference earlier this week that Cambridge, Massachusetts, police had "acted stupidly" by arresting Gates, a Harvard University scholar and friend of the president's, for disorderly conduct.
On Friday, Obama made an impromptu appearance at the daily White House briefing in an effort to contain the controversy. He said he continued to believe that both the officer, Sgt. James Crowley, and Gates had overreacted during the incident, but the president also faulted his own comments.
"This has been ratcheting up, and I obviously helped to contribute ratcheting it up," he said. "I want to make clear that in my choice of words, I think I unfortunately gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge police department and Sgt. Crowley specifically. And I could've calibrated those words differently."
Seeking to lighten the situation further, he said he had invited both Crowley and Gates for "a beer here in the White House."
The incident began when police went to Gates' home last week after a passer-by reported a potential break-in. It turned out that Gates had tried to jimmy open his own door, which was stuck, and there was no intruder. Gates protested the police actions and was arrested, although the charges have since been dropped.
Before Obama's appearance Friday, a multiracial group of police officers stood with Crowley in Massachusetts and asked Obama and the state's governor, Deval Patrick, to apologize for comments they called insulting. Patrick has said Gates' arrest was "every black man's nightmare." Patrick is black.
Dennis O'Connor, president of the Cambridge Police Superior Officers Association, said Obama's remarks were "misdirected" and the Cambridge police "deeply resent the implication" that race was a factor in the arrest.
Sgt. Leon Lashley, a black officer who was at Gates' home with Crowley at the time of the arrest, said he supported his fellow officer's action "100 percent."
Gates has said he returned from an overseas trip, found the door jammed and he and his driver attempted to force it open. Gates went through the back door and was inside the house when police arrived. Police say he flew into a verbal rage when Crowley asked him to show identification to prove he should be in the home. Police say Gates accused Crowley of racial bias, refused to calm down and was arrested.
Gates, 58, maintains he turned over identification when asked to do so. He says Crowley arrested him after the professor followed him to the porch, repeatedly demanding the sergeant's name and badge number because he was unhappy over his treatment.
The following is the text of President Barack Obama's remarks at a White House briefing Friday, as transcribed by CQ Transcriptions.
I wanted to address you guys directly, because over the last day and a half, obviously, there's been all sorts of controversy around the incident that happened in Cambridge with Professor Gates and the police department there.
I actually just had a conversation with Sgt. Jim Crowley, the officer involved. And I have to tell you that, as I said yesterday, my impression of him was that he was a outstanding police officer and a good man, and that was confirmed in the phone conversation. And I told him that.
And I â because this has been ratcheting up and I obviously helped to contribute ratcheting it up, I want to make clear that in my choice of words, I think, I unfortunately, I think, gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge police department or Sgt. Crowley specifically. And I could have calibrated those words differently. And I told this to Sgt. Crowley.
I continue to believe, based on what I have heard, that there was an overreaction in pulling Prof. Gates out of his home to the station. I also continue to believe, based on what I heard, that Prof. Gates probably overreacted as well.
My sense is you've got two good people in a circumstance in which neither of them were able to resolve the incident in the way that it should have been resolved and the way they would have liked it to be resolved.
The fact that it has garnered so much attention, I think, is a testimony to the fact that these are issues that are still very sensitive here in America. And, you know, so to the extent that my choice of words didn't illuminate, but rather contributed to more media frenzy, I think that was unfortunate.
What I'd like to do then is make sure that everybody steps back for a moment, recognizes that these are two decent people, not extrapolate too much from the facts but, as I said at the press conference, 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.
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.
My hope is that as a consequence of this event, this ends up being what's called a teachable moment, where all of us, instead of pumping up the volume, spend a little more time listening to each other and try to focus on how we can generally improve relations between police officers and minority communities, and that instead of flinging accusations, we can all be a little more reflective in terms of what we can do to contribute to more unity.
Lord knows we need it right now. Because over the last two days, as we've discussed this issue, I don't know if you've noticed, but nobody's been paying much attention to health care.
I will not use this time to spend more words on health care, although I can't guarantee that that will be true next week.
But I just wanted to emphasize that â one last point I've guess I'd make. There are some who say that as president I shouldn't have stepped into this at all, because it's a local issue.
I have to tell you that that thing â that part of it, I disagree with.
The fact that this has become such a big issue I think is indicative of the fact that, you know, race is still a troubling aspect of our society. Whether I were black or white, I think that me commenting on this and hopefully contributing to constructive, as opposed to negative, understandings about the issue is part of my portfolio.
So at the end of the conversation, there was discussion about â my conversation with Sgt. Crowley, there was a discussion about he and I and Prof. Gates having a beer here in the White House. We don't know if that's scheduled yet, but we may put that together.
He also did say he wanted to find out if there was a way of getting the press off his lawn.
I, I informed him that I can't get the press off my lawn.
He pointed out that my lawn is bigger than his lawn.
But if anybody has any connections to the Boston press as well as national press, Sgt. Crowley would be happy for you to stop trampling his grass.
Thank you guys.