Tonight, when President Obama sits down at the White House picnic table for a much-anticipated beer with Henry Louis Gates Jr. and James Crowley, the woman who set Gatesgate in motion with her 911 call, Lucia Whalen, will be somewhere else. This, we’re being told today, is an unconscionable and perhaps sexist slap in the face. Whalen’s lawyer, Wendy Murphy, started it off yesterday at Whalen’s press conference. “The one person whose actions have been exemplary will be at work tomorrow in Cambridge,” she said. “I don’t know maybe it’s a guy thing.” This morning, multiple columnists echoed that sentiment. The Daily News’ Michael Daly says that Whalen “sure sounds like someone who belongs at the picnic table,” for she “is the one person in the incident whom nobody can fault.” Politico’s Roger Simon laments, “In reality, only Whalen … acted responsibly from beginning to end in this whole affair. And she doesn’t even get a free drink out of it.”
You can almost hear the voice from that McCain ad: How disrespectful! But before we make a martyr out of
Saint Whalen, let’s break down exactly why this picnic-table summit is taking place at all. Superficially, it’s because Obama wants to heal the conflict between Gates and Crowley, which became his responsibility when he reignited the controversy with his “stupidly” comment. In reality, it’s a public-relations move that allows Obama to make amends for taking sides against the police, and, he hopes, keeps intact his image as a black politician who rises above racial politics. Here’s what the meeting is not: a reunion. How about that old concerned neighbor who first alerted Whalen to the suspected break-in? Let’s invite her, too. Then maybe Gates’s driver, and the 911 operator, and the police dispatcher, and the other officers on the scene. Maybe once all the players arrive on the South Lawn, they can reenact the whole thing!
Yes, Whalen was initially unjustly vilified by some, and we now know that she acted completely responsibly throughout. She thought there was a burglary, and she called 911. Props to her for looking out for her neighbors, and for not being a racist. But this kind of thing happens every day. Daly, Simon, and Murphy seem to think that Whalen should be invited to the picnic-table summit as a reward for doing what they admit was the responsibility of any good citizen. But good citizens shouldn’t need a reward or an incentive to do the right thing.