News Columns & Blogs

Pro-con on Obama's Gates comment

President Obama was asked what he thought of the July 16 arrest of Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. (in photo). Acknowledging that he wasn't there, and that he was relying on "reports" of the incident, Obama proceeded to label the "Cambridge police," not the arresting officer, "stupid." He went on to give voice to what was in the hearts and on the lips of many black citizens (and other Americans who care about human rights and civil liberties), namely that race was a factor here. I wish he hadn't used the word "stupid." I wish he hadn't, in effect and however inadvertently, accused the whole police force of stupidity. There are more than a few fine, sensitive and caring cops who perform a critical function in society, cops who are far from stupid. But would the Cambridge police officer who busted the renowned, revered professor in his own home have done the same if the academic had been white? I don't believe so, not for a minute. Which is why, however imperfectly he may have expressed it, Obama did the cause of improved community-police relations a huge service by pulling no punches. Young, less poised and polished, less well-off black Americans than Henry Louis Gates Jr. or Barack Obama just might benefit from the president's "stupid" remark. — Norm Stamper, Huffington Post

The main problem with President Obama's nationally televised comment about Cambridge (Mass.) Police Sgt. James Crowley had less to do with race and justice than it did with the unwise, immature application of presidential power. Given his own background and friendship with Gates, Obama's immediate reaction to Gates' arrest was understandable — he sided with a friend who felt victimized by petty authority. The facts surrounding the arrest, of course, are more complicated than that. While it is still not easy to be a black man in America, it is also, apparently, not easy for a police officer to deal with a prickly, self-important Harvard professor. The difficulty here is not Obama's view of the matter, which is shared by many. It is his use of the nation's highest office to single out an American citizen for judgment and abuse, even if indirectly (speaking of the Cambridge police acting "stupidly"). Because of the immense disparity in position and power, the words of a president fall on an individual like a load of bricks — they can crush with the flick of a phrase. In this case, Obama used the power of his office with the awkwardness of a child pulling the wings off a fly he is trying to examine. Obama, who understands the power of words, should have known better. — Michael Gerson, Washington Post's PostPartisan blog