Renowned African-American scholar Henry Louis Gates's brush with the law will, thanks to President Barack Obama, reside in the history books.
By Friday afternoon, the story had spun so far out of control that Obama felt compelled to make a surprise appearance before the White House press, where he attempted to amend and roll back his remarks.
To update those returning from Mars, Gates, the Harvard professor, had an extremely unfortunate altercation with a policeman last week. A caller noticed two "black men" breaking into a home a few blocks from the university and called 911.
In fact, Gates was trying to free a jammed door of his own home, with the assistance of his driver. When the police arrived, a confrontation arose between Gates and the responding officer that became so heated that the nerdy professor was arrested for disorderly conduct. The charges were ultimately dropped.
When Obama was asked in a Wednesday press conference to comment on the events, his first reflex was to criticize the officer, who, he said, "acted stupidly." But he also provided a thoughtful and accurate discussion of the historical context:
"What I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there is a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. Race remains a factor in the society. That doesn't lessen the incredible progress that has been made. I am standing here as testimony to the progress that's been made; and yet the fact of the matter is that this still haunts us."
Igniting the Firestorm
Clearly, it was the unfortunate use of the word "stupidly" that created a firestorm, notwithstanding the nuances revealed in the complete answer. Why? Because the knee- jerk rejection to the policeman's point of view is the perfect metaphor for the Obama presidency.
We live in a nation of moderates, but are governed by politicians with views that are anything but. On the far right, there are many who think that everything the government does is always bad, unless it is being done by a government employee in a uniform. On the far left, there are many who think that everything the government does is terrific, unless it is being done by a government employee in a uniform.
Our government is broken because the far left and the far right are so busy trying to finish each other off that they have little time to devote to the nation's real business.
'Beyond the Bitterness'
President Obama was elected because he appeared to understand that. His victory speech after his Iowa caucus victory captured perfectly what Americans yearn for:
"You came together as Democrats, Republicans and independents, to stand up and say that we are one nation. We are one people. And our time for change has come. You said the time has come to move beyond the bitterness and pettiness and anger that's consumed Washington."
But after his victory, he has governed, at least on economic matters, mostly as a strident left-winger. He has sought to increase the power of the state at every turn. Hand in hand with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, he has focused on settling scores, on bitterness and pettiness, rather than bipartisan solutions for the nation's problems.
His agenda has been so extreme that "Obamunism" T-shirts have become a rage.
But he has done all that while continuing to appear cautious and reasonable.
Until that fateful press conference.
Lack of Information
It may be that only Gates and the police officer will ever fully understand what occurred that day in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Regardless of how boorish Gates may have behaved, the police officer probably shouldn't have arrested him. And it is even possible that race played a role, that if Gates were white he would have been cut more slack. But the only rational comment one can make is that there is not enough information available to form a conclusion about this episode.
And even as the Gates affair was developing, we received yet another reminder of how sensitive one should be about the stresses of police work when Jersey City detective Marc DiNardo died after he and four of his colleagues were shot while attempting to apprehend two suspects. A police officer never knows which call will be routine.
When Obama immediately assumed that the policeman was wrong, he implied that he thought that the officer was a racist and a liar. That is the type of sentiment that is common in the far left, that to this day celebrates people like Bill Ayers of the Weathermen, a group that among other things, bombed police headquarters in New York City in the 1960s. But it is far from the mainstream view.
America might have forgiven this intensely likable president for what might have been a slip at the end of a long news conference. But they could not because he had already given them Obamunism.
Instead, his remark served to confirm the worst fears of those in the middle. In his heart, President Obama is a radical leftist with no intent to govern in the manner that he promised during the campaign.
Which is why the Gates affair took the center of the public stage last week, and why it may well be viewed by historians as the defining moment of this presidency.
Kevin A. Hassett is the senior fellow and director of Economic Policy Studies at AEI.