07.28.09

The Beer Summit

As Obama prepares to meet Skip Gates and Sgt. Crowley, presidential wit Mark Katz asks: What do their beers say about them? Plus, A GALLERY of pols and brews, and more in HUNGRY BEAST.

Usually, the beer drinking precedes the disorderly conduct charges, but the unfolding Skip Gates brouhaha is no ordinary chain of events. And so Thursday evening comes the strangest beat yet: President Obama is hosting a racial summit/ happy hour that brings to one table these three men—a policeman, a professor, and a president—and their preferred brands of beer.

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But there is a code that corresponds to these cold ones. Beer is American shorthand for guy-to-guy commonality. "Which candidate would you rather have a beer with?" is the polling construct that twice gave us President George W. Bush. No coincidence that the man his father thrashed, Mike Dukakis, once famously invited a hard-boiled Boston labor leader to his house for a beer and brought out one bottle and two glasses. It is one of those existential questions that some Facebook app probably already asks: "What beer are you?" And like most exercises in self-definition, the answer reveals more than it intends.

According to the White House, Sgt. Jim Crowley prefers Blue Moon, not the first choice you might expect from a cop who patrols the mean streets of Cambridge. As a brand, Blue Moon beer is not unlike Blue Dog Democrats, walking the tightrope of competing identities. Defining itself as "artfully crafted," it presents itself as the choice of a connoisseur who appreciates an authentically hearty Belgian-style beer in the same manner as a full-bodied Napa Valley cult Cab. Blue Moon comes with its own marketing gimmick: The suggested serving calls for a slice of orange, to pick up the beer's notes of citrus from the orange peel and coriander. With this choice, Sgt. Crowley escapes the stereotype of a shot-and-a-beer beat cop and instead conjures the image of a striving Yuppie sipping an artisanal sangria.

A closer look into his choice, however, only deepens the mystery of this man we’ve just met. Blue Moon only looks like a microbrew. A careful reading of the label's fine print reveals it as just another offering in the product line of a global giant. Coors, to be exact, owned by an eponymous, famously right-wing family with a reputation for supporting the NRA as adamantly as it opposes labor unions, sometimes with the same tactics. Now what are we to make of Sgt. Crowley? Is he a crunchy Cambridge social servant or a law-and-order Beantown cop? And more to the point, which one showed up at Professor Gates' home that fateful evening, and which one is showing up at the White House?

And what about the choice of the man he arrested? When asked to provide the brand of beer he'd like to drink, this brand-name Harvard professor made a list instead of a choice. Red Stripe or Beck's. (Or was it Red Stripe and Beck's?) Either way, while both in the lager/pilsner/watery camp, these beers exist at the polar ends of the brand spectrum, suggesting a bifurcated sense of self. Red Stripe, an inexpensive Jamaican export, gained popularity in the U.S. in lockstep with reggae and Rasta. (Red Stripe also has a lower alcohol content than most, perhaps because those who drink are often already under the influence of something else.) Beck's is also an import whose most germane attribute is its Germanity. It presents itself as the highest ideal of beer as imagined by the people who invented the stuff and take it most seriously. If a bottle of Red Stripe could talk, it would say: "Don't worry—be happy!" Your bottle of Beck's might growl through its thick accent: "You will not worry! You will be happy!" Having trouble choosing between a Red Stripe and a Beck's is like looking up from a menu and saying to the waiter, "I can't decide between the jerk chicken or the bratwurst." Or, in Professor Gates' case, I can't decide whether to politely ask you to leave my house, or threaten to blitzkrieg your career.

Sgt. Crowley escapes the stereotype of a shot-and-a-beer beat cop and instead conjures the image of a striving Yuppie sipping an artisanal sangria.

And then there is the choice of President Barack Obama—himself arguably the most exciting and powerful brand so far this century. Which is why his choice seems so disappointing: Budweiser. The "King of Beers" is so ubiquitous that requesting one is practically the opposite of making a choice. "Gimme a Bud" is what you say when you’d rather punt on choice altogether. It's hard to imagine that too-cool-for-school, organic-garden-in-the-White-House Barack "Barry" Obama has a secret thirst for Budweiser, over a rich Magic Hat No. 9 or Smuttynose Old Brown Dog Ale. Here is a man who just a few weeks ago boldly opted to put Dijon mustard on his hamburger! Was this past week so bad that he felt the need to identify himself with the safe choice of asking for the Heinz ketchup of beers? For a guy who used to give stirring speeches from the stage of the Parthenon, the president’s decision to order a Bud was disturbingly uninspired.

Obama got himself in the middle of this mess by saying the police acted "stupidly” which is how he now finds himself hosting a kegger. Beer is the official beverage of "stupidly"—and "stupidly" is the brand of rhetorical response to a racial flashpoint that the White House hopes a couple of beers can help him unlaunch.

Plus: Check out Hungry Beast, for more news on the latest restaurants, hot chefs, and tasty recipes.

A former political operative, recovering copywriter, and failed sitcom writer, Mark Katz is now the founder and principal of the Soundbite Institute, a creative think tank that specializes in on-message humor. His essays have been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Time magazine, and he is the author of CLINTON & ME: A Real Life Political Comedy, an account of eight years as the in-house humor speechwriter of the Clinton White House.