Julian Zelizer says the beer summit is unprecedented

Historians in the News

It's highly unusual for a president to become personally involved in a local racial matter such as the arrest of Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., presidential historian Julian E. Zelizer said today.

Zelizer said he couldn't remember a recent president inserting himself in a local issue this way, and certainly not inviting the principal parties to the White House.

On a much bigger scale, Zelizer noted that President John F. Kennedy, then a candidate, did personally intervene when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested in 1960 during an Atlanta sit-in. The future president became friends with King's widow, Coretta Scott King.

However, "that was a much more explosive issue than this," said Zelizer, a Princeton University professor. By getting involved, he said, Kennedy tacitly showed support for the civil rights movement and followed up with White House policies that helped bring about racial equality.

While Obama may be sincere about using the "teachable moment" of the Gates case to launch a positive discussion about race, "part of it was about him, rather than the situation," Zelizer said. "This is a way for him to quasi-apologize for what he said."

"I think that some part of him genuinely believes that dialogue can be helpful," he added. "It's also clearly partially a political response to stop a story that's getting out of control."

Obama, whose initial remark that Cambridge police had "acted stupidly" when they arrested Gates for disorderly conduct in his own home, helped elevate an essentially local case into a national controversy, has said he regretted that his comments had fueled the furor.

"I'm not a big fan of this beer at the White House," Zelizer said. "It turns this into a media moment, rather than a serious moment."

"It can kind of trivialize the matter," he said, instead of tackling the deep-seated racial problem underlying the confrontation between Gates, who is black, and police Sergeant James Crowley. The officer, who is white, was called to Gates' home when a neighbor reported a burglary, but Gates had forced open the jammed front door.

"If this is all we see from the president, there will be some people that will be disappointed" Zelizer said. "The danger of a hearts-and-minds approach is it never gets to the underlying problem If there's no policy on the table -- no serious proposal on the table -- it's hard to see how these discussions can really result in long-term change."...
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