Professor and policeman to join Obama at picnic table peace talks

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On Thursday afternoon, Barack Obama will sit down at a picnic table outside the Oval Office and attempt to lower tensions between Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Sgt. James Crowley of the Cambridge, Mass., Police Department .

The goal of the gathering on the White House South Lawn, says presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs, is “to continue to take the temperature down a bit” in the discussion of race relations in the US triggered by Crowley’s arrest of Gates after an investigation into a suspected burglary at the professor’s home.

President Obama added fuel to the debate on race relations when he told a press conference last week that the Cambridge police had “acted stupidly” for arresting Gates when it was clear the home he broke into was his own.

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When he called both parties to the dispute on Friday in a bid to tamp down the controversy, Obama suggested a White House meeting where Gates and Crowley could share a beer and talk more calmly than they had the day of the arrest. “The president actually offered it up on the call, and Crowley then pretty quickly said he would be in and that he likes Blue Moon” beer, Gibbs said.

Gibbs said the picnic table gathering did not have a formal agenda. The president sees the meeting “as a further opportunity to step back a bit," the spokesman said. Later he said, "It is a chance to talk and have a dialog... This is about having a beer and de-escalating."

Only the three men will be at the picnic table although Sgt. Crowley is expected to bring his family to the White House to have their picture taken with the President. Gibbs said he did not know if Professor Gates was bringing family members.

At a meeting with reporters Wednesday, Gibbs was asked if the controversy offered the most revealing incident involving race and the president’s views on race since his major campaign speech on the topic. “I don’t necessarily know that I would agree with that,” Gibbs said. “I think that given who he is ... one never gets away from it.”

The White House is eager to get the race issue off of center stage and focus public attention on the administration’s push for health care reform, which has run into major problems in Congress. When a reporter asked whether Thursday’s gathering on the South Lawn would end the story, Gibbs quipped “that is a better question for your executive producer.”

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