When Three Folks Make a Summit
Well, it is fascinating to think about what it means. The President, disparaging the media’s preoccupation with the event, said he was “fascinated with the fascination.” He also corrected the reporters’ language: “It’s a clever term, but this is not a summit, guys. This is three folks having a drink at the end of the day and hopefully giving people an opportunity to listen to each other.” (See in Friday’s New York Times, Over Beers, No Apologies, but Plans to Have Lunch.)
But it was more than just “three folks.” Each one was an implicit, informal representative of a constituency, and they met for the very serious purpose of forging a truce. For once, the press got it right.
Professor Gates, surely our country’s foremost Black academic, represented the aspirations and achievements of Black professionals, the new class that emerged out of the civil rights struggle of the sixties, the class that made Obama possible. And Obama made it clear that “Skip Gates” was “a friend of mine,” and he might be biased in his favor.
Sgt. Crowley represented the white working class, what used to be known as “the moral majority” of hard working, law abiding citizens. Generally speaking, this constituency does not have friends in high places, much less access to privilege. They tend to vote for whoever seems to represent their interests of the moment or understand their values and needs. For a time last summer, it seemed as if Sarah Palin might be able to represent them. Certainly she herself thought she did.
The President? Well, that was the question: whose side was he on? He brought in his Vice President, Joe Biden, according to the Times, to “add balance to the photo op that the White House presented: two black guys, two white guys, sitting around a table.” Biden also added credibility, the Times went on to say, with his links to “blue-collar, labor union America and his roots in Scranton, Pa.” If Obama was friends with “Skip” Gates, Biden could be seen, at least, as identified with Sgt. Crowley.
The test for Obama was to present himself as President of all Americans. His intitial reaction was that the police had acted stupidly, and while he said he regretted his choice of words his identification with the black man who was arrested was clear. For all our talk, we are not yet in “post-racial” America – if we ever will be. The public and the media might well understand and forgive a frank and honest expression of his sentiment, but they were intensely curious about how he would restore his connection with the other parts of his constituency.
And so the Beer Summit was arranged. The representatives of Middle America and the Black Professional class from which Obama sprung shook hands. Afterwards, Prof. Gates noted Obama’s exceptional skills in having arranged the event, and Sgt. Crowley summed it up: “What you had today was two gentlemen who agreed to disagree on a particular issue.” Case closed.