Benjamin Franklin once said that beer is proof that God loves us. If we think about the recent White House meeting between President Obama, Harvard Prof. Henry Gates, and Cambridge Police Sargent James Crowley, it seems clear enough that Obama thinks beer is a good drink to have a conversation over, but I wonder what message something like this sends to everybody and if it is a positive one.
We know that beer is the fuel of sports here in the United States, mostly because the beverage companies sponsor all sorts of sporting events. If you look around at the sights in any major league ballpark, chances are you’re going to see a sign advertising beer. Beer is ubiquitous at games in all sports, as a beverage that is quaffed with snacks while watching the event, as well as an advertised product.
While I have nothing against old Ben Franklin, or beer for that matter, I wonder if everybody in the world feels the same way. Certain religions call for their members to abstain from alcohol; many other people must refrain from drinking for health reasons. Besides those considerations, the biggest segment of the population that concerns me are the young people who are not yet allowed to legally drink. Did they really need a presidential meeting to occur over beer, solidifying an already subliminal imagery of something that is cool?
I think Obama meant well when he set up this meeting, but let’s make no mistake that there was a great deal of calculation here. How does a man who seems aloof and above the common folk send a message that he is just one of us? Well, he doesn’t go up to Cambridge and have a snifter of cognac in one of the university lounges, that’s for sure. Gates and Crowley were all business in their suits and ties, but Obama rolled up his sleeves, grabbed a few snacks from the bowl on the table, and presto-change-o he becomes a man of the people, drinking a beer after work with the guys like the rest of us working stiffs.
If you study the picture that was in the newspaper carefully, the one where the three men (and Vice President Joe Biden who drank a non-alcoholic beer) clink their glasses, it reminded me of that great old show Cheers. Everybody definitely knows their names, and they are just hanging out, shooting the breeze on a warm summer’s evening, looking to all the world like best buds. Of course, there is the thing that is festering beneath all this that started the mess in the first place: America’s view of race and the perception that racism is practiced by some members of police forces in our country.
Sgt. Crowley arrested Prof. Gates after getting a call about a break-in at the professor’s home. One would think that as soon as Prof. Gates provided his ID to the officer that the story would have been over, but the officer ended up arresting Gates for disorderly conduct. People all over the world jumped on this story like John Wayne onto a speeding horse, mostly because of so many past events involving police and people of color. This incident, while lacking the inflammatory aspects of a Rodney King or an Amaduo Diallo situation, clicked in the collective consciousness of those who wonder if this is just another case of a white cop abusing power with an innocent black citizen.
Still, we have dead cops whose families will tell you differently, or a paralyzed cop like NYPD’s Steven McDonald whose life was forever altered by a black perpetrator. Yes, we have stark images on both sides, but seemingly no answers to the burning questions, with certainly none being provided after the “beer summit” ended.
General Colin Powell made an interesting comment on this case. Powell, a native New Yorker who no doubt had plenty of opportunities to observe the NYPD in action, said that his mother told him that you always have to listen to a police officer. This reminded me of exactly what my father, a retired NYPD cop, told me when I was a teenager. “No matter what,” he said, “you always obey the police officer.” It seems to me that this was good advice and good parenting in both cases.
Now, back to the beer itself. Did it send a wrong message to America’s youth? Should it have been over cups of expensive coffee, or perhaps soda, or even bottled water? Since each of those drinks also have detractors, I guess probably not. The truth is though that we have the old saying “in vino veritas” that sort of makes me wonder if Obama was onto something here. He wanted to loosen these guys up a little bit, get them to be open to the other’s feelings, and relax while all those cameras on the South Lawn were poked in their direction.
This “beer summit” is now history, and whatever it means in the grand scheme of things may not be decided for many years, but it reminded me of another president who allowed alcohol at meetings in the White House. His name was Andrew Jackson and apparently guests got so rowdy and drunk on his watch that major damage was caused, things were thrown out windows, and there were wild parties late into the night. Of course, that would be less like Cheers and more like Animal House, with “double secret probation” always being a possibility. Maybe next time, Mr. President, you should tap a keg.