WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama tried Friday to defuse a volatile national debate over the arrest of a black Harvard University professor, acknowledging that his own comments had inflamed tensions and insisting he did not mean to malign the arresting officer.
Obama placed calls to both the professor, Henry Louis Gates Jr., and the man who arrested him, Sgt. James Crowley of the Cambridge, Mass., Police Department, two days after saying police officers had "acted stupidly" in hauling Gates from his home in handcuffs. Obama said he still considered the arrest "an overreaction" but added that "professor Gates probably overreacted as well."
"I obviously helped to contribute, ratcheting it up," the president said during an appearance in the White House briefing room. "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 or Sgt. Crowley, specifically, and I could have calibrated those words differently."
Obama's unusual personal intervention and public statement came just four hours after the White House said he had no more to say on the matter. But after talking with Michelle Obama and some of his closest friends amid unrelenting media attention, his friends and advisers said, Obama reversed course in hopes of quashing a dispute that had set off strong reactions and had made it harder for the White House to focus public attention on his efforts to pass health care legislation.
The Gates case has become the first significant racial controversy Obama has confronted since being sworn in as the nation's first African-American president. The improvisational handling of it underscored the delicate challenges for a leader who has tried to govern by crossing old lines and emphasizing commonalities over differences.
Advisers said both his sharp statement, made at a Wednesday night news conference, and his toned-down remarks Friday reflected strains of his experiences. He was personally outraged by the arrest and wanted to speak bluntly about it, aides said. And they said he was distressed that his words proved polarizing and contrary to his instincts for conciliation.
Whether Obama succeeded in tamping the emotions of the case remained to be seen. During their telephone conversation, Obama said, Crowley suggested that he and Gates come to the White House to share a beer with the president. Obama conveyed that idea in his phone call to Gates.
Gates said in an e-mail message afterward that he was "pleased to accept his invitation" to come to the White House and meet Crowley. "After all, I first made the offer to meet with Sgt. Crowley myself, last Monday," Gates wrote. "I am determined that this be a teaching moment for America."
Crowley made no public comments after his conversation with Obama. He has denied doing anything wrong and has declined to apologize to Gates.
The episode stemmed from a misunderstanding when Gates returned from a trip to his Cambridge home July 16 and found his door stuck. A passer-by reported seeing someone trying to break into the house and police responded. Although the arresting police officer became aware that Gates was in his own home, police said Gates was belligerent and was arrested for disorderly conduct. The charge was later dropped.
Obama first discussed with aides how to address the arrest before his Wednesday news conference. Aides said Obama, a Harvard-trained lawyer, zeroed in on the fact that the arrest came after police confirmed that Gates was in his own home.
But his use of the word "stupidly" at the news conference that evening generated angry responses from Cambridge police, and some of his aides privately rued the word choice.
Friday morning, police union members held a news conference in Cambridge calling on Obama to apologize for demeaning Crowley and suggesting it was Gates who made it a racial incident.
"The facts of this case suggest that the president used the right adjective but directed it to the wrong party," said Sgt. Dennis O'Connor, president of the Cambridge Police Superior Officers Association.
Sgt. Leon Lashley, an African-American officer at the Gates house that day, told the Associated Press that he supported Crowley's actions "100 percent."
Obama did not apologize but softened his language: "I continue to believe, based on what I have heard, that there was an overreaction in pulling professor Gates out of his home to the station. I also continue to believe, based on what I heard, that professor Gates probably overreacted as well."
Obama described Crowley as an "outstanding police officer and a good man" who has "a fine track record on racial sensitivity." But he added that the incident was a reminder that "because of the difficulties of the past, you know, African-Americans are sensitive to these issues."
John Payton, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said that unlike white presidents who could dance around racial issues, Obama had to be direct.
"That's the whole difference," he said. "Bush could punt. Obama can't punt."