WASHINGTON (AP) — Knocked off stride by a racial uproar he helped stoke, President Barack Obama hastened Friday to tamp down the controversy. Obama, who had said Cambridge, Mass., police "acted stupidly" in arresting black scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., declared the white arresting officer was a good man and invited him and the professor to the White House for a beer.
Obama conceded his words had been ill-chosen, but he stopped short of a public apology. He personally telephoned both Gates and Sgt. James Crowley, 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 even commiserated with Crowley about reporters on his lawn.
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 surprise appearance in the White House briefing room to try to put the matter to rest. The blowup had dominated national attention just as Obama 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 the Harvard professor 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 Cambridge police had "acted stupidly" by arresting Gates, a friend of the president's. Still, Obama said Friday 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."
The story had taken on a life of its own, and the White House scrambled to keep up.
Gibbs said just Friday morning that the president had probably said most of what he was going to say, and that the only problem was media "obsession."
Hours later, Obama showed up to try to put the issue to rest.
There were signs both that Obama's statement had helped to ease tensions and that his critics were not about to let that be the end of it: A trio of Massachusetts police organizations issued a statement thanking the president for his "willingness to reconsider his remarks." And a Republican congressman from Michigan, Thaddeus McCotter, said he would introduce a House resolution calling on Obama to apologize to Crowley.
Obama tried to lighten his 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.
The case began on Monday, when word broke that Gates, 58, had been arrested five days earlier at the two-story home he rents from Harvard.
Supporters including Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson called the arrest an outrageous act of racial profiling. Public interest increased when a photograph surfaced of the handcuffed Gates being escorted off his porch amid three officers, two white and one black.
Cambridge police moved to drop the disorderly conduct charge on Tuesday — without apology, but calling the case "regrettable."
That didn't end the national debate: Some said Gates was responsible for his own arrest because of his response to Crowley, while others said Gates was justified to yell at the officer.
Obama's criticism of the police only added fuel to the racial debate.
Meanwhile, the police union and fellow officers, black and white, rallied around Crowley, a decorated officer who in 1993 tried to give lifesaving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to Reggie Lewis, a black Boston Celtics player who collapsed at practice. Lewis could not be revived.
Crowley, 42, had been selected to be a police academy instructor on how to avoid racial profiling.
A multiracial group of officers and union officials stood with Crowley on Friday at a news conference to show support and to ask Obama and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, who is black, to apologize for their comments. Patrick had called Gates' arrest "every black man's nightmare."
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 quell the uproar.
"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.
"I think it's going to make people talk about race relations around the United States and in their hometowns," 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."
Associated Press writers Bob Salsberg in Cambridge, Mass., Charles Babington, Ben Feller and Mary Clare Jalonick in Washington, Brendan Farrington in Tallahassee, Fla., and Tim Martin in Lansing, Mich., contributed to this report.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.