WASHINGTON — They came, they met, they drank. They did not apologize.
The much-anticipated beer summit of President Barack Obama, the Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Sgt. James Crowley of the Cambridge Police Department in Massachusetts took place Thursday night, accompanied by minute-by-minute reporting from the White House press corps and countdown clocks from the cable news networks. CNN had five cameras broadcasting live from the White House and used Google Earth maps to show the placement of the picnic table in the Rose Garden. Vice President Joe Biden was a last-minute addition by the White House.
After 10 days of near nonstop media coverage of a case that launched a thousand news stories about race, the protagonists sat down for less than an hour at a table across from the Oval Office.
"What you had today was two gentlemen who agreed to disagree on a particular issue," a poised and smooth Crowley said during a 15-minute news conference after the session. "We didn't spend too much time dwelling on the past, and we decided to look forward." Gates said in an interview, "I don't think anybody but Barack Obama would have thought about bringing us together."
The two men and their families, who had accompanied them, first encountered each other in the library while each group was on a separate tour of the White House on Thursday afternoon.
"Nobody knew what to do," Gates said. "So I walked over, stuck out my hand and said, 'It's a pleasure to meet you.' That broke the awkwardness."
Crowley added that the families "had continued the tour as a group." He described the interaction as very cordial.
Gates concurred, saying: "We hit it off right from the beginning. When he's not arresting you, Sgt. Crowley is a really likable guy."
By the time the two men began their meeting with Obama, they could already report progress and told the president that they had made plans to lunch together soon.
"I am thankful to professor Gates and Sgt. Crowley for joining me at the White House this evening for a friendly, thoughtful conversation," Obama said in a statement. "Even before we sat down for the beer, I learned that the two gentlemen spent some time together listening to one another, which is a testament to them."
The addition of Biden was interesting, for a number of reasons.
Biden was able to draw on his credibility with blue-collar, labor union America and his roots in Scranton, Pa., to add balance to the photo op that the White House presented: two black guys, two white guys, sitting around a table.
Earlier in the day, Obama had razzed reporters for obsessing on the theatrics of the meeting. The issue had been boiling over since July 16, when Crowley, responding to a call about a possible break-in, arrested an irate Gates for disorderly conduct even though he had ascertained the professor was in his own home.
Obama added fuel to the fire a week later when he said in response to a question at a prime-time news conference that the Cambridge police had "acted stupidly" in arresting Gates, a word choice that he later said he regretted.
Obama had initially invited Crowley over for a beer to make up for his "stupidly" comment. But he didn't calculate just how intoxicated the media would be with the idea. On Monday, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs found himself briefing reporters that Obama would drink Budweiser. On Air Force One on Wednesday, Gibbs offered a beer clarification: "The president will drink Bud Light."
In the briefing room on Thursday, Gibbs was asked what "you hope you will have accomplished" by the overcovered gathering.
"No more questions about what kind of beer they're going to drink," Gibbs replied.
"I noticed this has been called the beer summit," Obama said after meeting earlier Thursday with President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo of the Philippines. "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."
The press was allowed only a peek at the gathering for about 40 seconds — and from a distance so great that reporters could not hear a word that was said.
Nonetheless, some details emerged:
Obama and Biden were in shirtsleeves, Crowley and Gates wore suits.
The four drank out of beer mugs. Obama had a Bud Light, Crowley had Blue Moon, Gates drank Sam Adams Light and Biden, who does not drink, had a Buckler nonalcoholic beer. (That may be why Biden had a piece of lime in his beer. Crowley, for his part, kept with tradition and had a slice of orange in his Blue Moon.)
The four men munched peanuts and pretzels.
Reporters and photographers had positioned themselves on the grounds waiting for the gathering to start, when a white family of five showed up. Were they the Crowleys? "Excuse me, may I ask who you are?" one reporter shouted.
"Not who you think," came the reply.
Information from the Washington Post was used in this report.