WASHINGTON — Trying to tamp down a national uproar over race, President Barack Obama acknowledged Friday he had used unfortunate words in declaring that Cambridge, Mass., police "acted stupidly" in arresting black scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. "I could've calibrated those words differently," he said.
He stopped short of a public apology. But the president telephoned both Gates and the white officer who had arrested him, hoping to end the rancorous back-and-forth over what had transpired and what Obama had said about it. Trying to lighten the situation, he said he had invited the Harvard professor and police St. James Crowley for "a beer here in the White House."
Hours earlier, a multiracial group of police officers had stood with Crowley in Massachusetts and said the president should apologize.
It was a measure of the nation's keen sensitivities on matters of race that the fallout from a disorderly conduct charge in Massachusetts — and the remarks of America's first black president about it — had mushroomed to such an extent that he felt compelled to make a special appearance at the White House to try to put the matter to rest. The blowup had knocked Obama offstride just as he was trying to marshal public pressure to get Congress to push through health care overhaul legislation — and as polls showed growing doubts about his performance.
"This has been ratcheting up, and I obviously helped to contribute ratcheting it up," Obama said of the racial controversy. "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 and Sgt. Crowley specifically. And I could've calibrated those words differently."
The president did not back down from his contention that police had overreacted by arresting Gates for disorderly conduct after coming to his home to investigate a possible break-in. He added, though, that he thought Gates, too, had overreacted to the police who questioned him. The charge has been dropped.
Obama stirred up a hornet's nest when he said at a prime-time news conference this week that the officer, who is white, had "acted stupidly" by arresting Gates, a friend of the president's. Looking back, Obama said he didn't regret stepping into the controversy and hoped the matter would end up being a "teachable moment" for the nation.
"The fact that this has garnered so much attention, I think, is testimony to the fact that these are issues that are still very sensitive here in America," Obama said.
Obama wryly took note of the distraction from his legislative efforts.
"I don't know if you've noticed, but nobody's been paying much attention to health care," the president said.
Obama, who has come under intense criticism from police organizations, said he had called Crowley to clear the air, and said the conversation confirmed his belief that the sergeant is an "outstanding police officer and a good man."
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs refused to say whether Obama had apologized to Crowley.
Asked repeatedly about that, Gibbs said: "If the president doesn't want to characterize it in a conversation that he hates having with you all, I'm not going to get ahead of him."
Obama was lighter in tone in his public remarks about his phone conversation with Crowley.
He said the police officer "wanted to find out if there was a way of getting the press off his lawn."
"I informed him that I can't get the press off my lawn," Obama joked.
In his conversation with Gates, aides said, Obama and the professor had spoken about the president's statement to the press and his conversation with Crowley.
Before Obama's appearance Friday, fellow police officers in Massachusetts said that Obama and the state's governor, Deval Patrick, should apologize for comments on the arrest. Patrick had said Gates' arrest was "every black man's nightmare."
Dennis O'Connor, president of the Cambridge Police Superior Officers Association, said Obama's remarks were "misdirected" and the Cambridge police "deeply resent the implication" that race was a factor in the arrest.
Sgt. Leon Lashley, a black officer who was at Gates' home with Crowley at the time of the arrest, said he supported his fellow officer's action "100 percent."
The incident began when Gates returned home from an overseas trip, found his door jammed, and tried to force it open. Gates went through the back door and was inside the house when police arrived. Police say he flew into a rage when Crowley asked him to show identification to prove he should be in the home. Police say Gates accused Crowley of racial bias, refused to calm down and was arrested.
Gates, 58, maintains he turned over identification when asked to do so. He says Crowley arrested him after the professor followed him to the porch, repeatedly demanding the sergeant's name and badge number because he was unhappy over his treatment.
Obama's take on the situation: "My sense is you've got two good people in a circumstance in which neither of them were able to resolve the incident in a way that it should have been resolved."
Democratic activists around the country were hopeful the president's latest remarks would put the issue to rest.
"Let's concentrate on the business at hand — fixing the economy and health care for everybody," said Florida state Rep. Luis Garcia, a vice chair of the state Democratic Party.
In Michigan, 19-year-old Mitchell Rivard, the president of the Michigan State University College Democrats, expressed hope the controversy would indeed be a learning experience for the country.
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"I think it's going to make people talk about race relations around the United States and in their home towns," Rivard said. "This will be something that people are going to talk about across the nation in terms of how we can have better race relations."