Even through beer goggles, The Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove writes, the reality of the summit could never have lived up to the cable-TV hype. The one bright spot: Sgt. Crowley’s star-making post-beer poise.
After all the hype for Thursday’s White House Beer Summit—the cheesy countdown clocks in the corner of the screen on CNN and MSNBC, the often silly panel discussions on all the outlets, CNN’s arguably insane segment featuring a crazed schematic of the Rose Garden get-together as though it were Second Battle of Fallujah—the actual event was a letdown.
Chris Matthews found it impossible not to compare the meeting to Bill Clinton’s historic White House ceremony between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin.
That was to be expected. Even through beer goggles, the reality could never have matched the buildup—which was stoked earlier in the day by a presidential photo-op during which Barack Obama affected to be “fascinated with the fascination about this evening.” The president added: “It’s a clever term, but this is not a summit, guys,” just three folks “having a drink at the end of the day.” Amid all the made-for-cable puns, CNN couldn’t resist offering up “The Audacity of Hops” and “The Coalition of the Swilling.” MSNBC weakly supplied “Ale to the Chief.”
The money shot, simulcast on all three cables, was about 40 seconds of shaky pool video—captured from a sterile distance of 50 feet away—first of a butler carrying a silver tray of steins across a manicured lawn, then of the president and the vice president in breezy shirtsleeves, and the professor and the cop in formal dark suits, seated at a round white patio table, with the steins placed in front of them.
Obama and Joe Biden (who was either a last-minute invitee or a party crasher, it wasn’t quite clear), grinned genially, leaned back, and popped nuts into their mouths. Harvard academic Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. and Cambridge Police Sergeant James Crowley, on the far side of the table and a safe distance from each other, sat ramrod-straight and unsmiling. All that could be heard was the whirring of cameras and some muffled muttering, as the president sipped his beer, then downed a mouthful of nuts, then laughed at something, then wiped his hand on his trousers. At one point he and Gates clinked steins. Biden didn’t seem interested in his nonalcoholic suds. Sgt. Crowley raised his beer to his lips and gulped, as Professor Gates lectured and gestured.
“Thank you!” barked a White House aide, and then the pool was briskly ushered out of range.
“I’m pretty unimpressed, Wendell,” Fox News anchor Bret Baier complained to White House correspondent Wendell Goler.
“I’m pretty unimpressed, too,” Goler said. Compared to its two rivals, Fox’s coverage was succinct and predictably sour. “Patronizing, condescending, insufferable,” Fox talking head Charles Krauthammer said of Obama. “Otherwise, I’m sure he’s a nice guy.” Bill Kristol snickered about Biden’s surprise appearance: “I give President Obama a huge amount of credit for caring about Vice President Biden.”
And so the Teachable Moment ended, or, rather, continued endlessly—not with a bang but with a whimper of post-game analysis, on and on, into the night. A watchable moment that inevitably morphed into an unwatchable eternity.
CNN, it has to be said, owned this story—but not always in a good way. In its pre-game coverage, Wolf Blitzer presided earnestly in front of a multi-screen display showing live shots of various locations on the White House grounds—including a bunch of photographers doing nothing in the “Briefing Room,” an inert structure labeled “Fence,” and an otherwise unidentifiable wall labeled “West Wing. “ The reductio ad absurdum of CNN’s coverage was Tom Foreman’s pointlessly detailed demonstration, complete with high-tech video pullouts, of how White House officials changed the venue of the beerfest from the picnic table by the playground equipment on the South Lawn to the smaller table in the Rose Garden.
On Fox, Neil Cavuto encouraged domestic beer brewer Dick Yuengling to complain that the president, in choosing Bud Light as his brew, was actually celebrating a Belgian-owned company. On The Ed Show, MSNBC’s vehicle for radio jock Ed Schultz, guest Stephanie Miller speculated that Biden would be praising Gates as “clean and articulate.”
The never-restrained Chris Matthews—who devoted much of his 5 p.m. Hardball show on MSNBC to the impending meeting—did a live opening segment for the usual 7 p.m. repeat, replete with assessments of body language and facial expressions, and found it impossible not to compare the meeting to Bill Clinton’s historic White House ceremony between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin.
Shortly after 7:30 p.m. Matthews broke in for Sgt. Crowley’s televised news conference at AFL-CIO headquarters, which was also carried live on Fox and CNN. The shock of the night: This supposedly media-innocent cop was thoughtful, relaxed, and even humorous before the cameras as he announced that he and the professor were planning to meet again.
“Do you know where you’re meeting?” a reporter asked.
“I do,” Crowley answered with a tiny grin.
“Can you tell us?” the reporter pressed.
“No!” Crowley shot back—getting rewarded with a roar of laughter.
Afterward on CNN, Lou Dobbs marveled: “He sounded at points like a politician.”
On Hardball, Politico columnist Roger Simon agreed: “He was like a head of state. He was very glib.” NBC Washington bureau chief Mark Whitaker chimed in: “A star is born.”
But it was Matthews who came up with a metaphor befitting the strange excess of the night: “We’ve got another Susan Boyle here.”
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.