CALVIN WOODWARD

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -"If you ever reach total enlightenment while drinking beer, I bet it makes beer shoot out your nose," the comedic philosopher Jack Handey once theorized.

If there was a messy eureka moment like that among the White House beer drinkers Thursday night, it was well out of sight.

President Barack Obama's get-together with black Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. and white police Sgt. James Crowley was less about reaching for racial enlightenment than about helping Obama change the topic and get Americans to focus on what he wants to do in office.

His approval ratings are sagging and his proposed health care overhaul is a momentous struggle.

His snap judgment that Cambridge, Mass., police "acted stupidly" in the Gates-Crowley confrontation proved a distraction that, if anything, may have sharpened a racial divide. It certainly got people talking.

Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and the two guests were seen hoisting mugs of beer on a Rose Garden patio, the press given a few minutes to film the meeting but kept far enough away that no chatter could be heard.

Obama has dealt with race at calibrated, infrequent and powerful moments. His historic achievement as the first black president is held out as the obvious and most shining testament to racial progress even as he highlights persistent inequalities and prejudices.

It was his seemingly impromptu dip into roiling waters that he's trying to get out of now, with the dog days of August nigh, Congress scattering next week and Americans making tracks to the beach.

Both protagonists have defended their behavior in the Cambridge dustup at Gates' home. But in agreeing to come ‚ one does not turn down a president's invitation lightly ‚ they signaled willingness to be players in a reconciliation drama.

The White House said in advance that the moment would no doubt be "poignant," a sure sign everything was being managed to achieve poignancy.

"Sure it's a gimmick," said damage-control specialist Eric Dezenhall, "but Obama's gift is making gimmicks look visionary.

"In fact, the whole post-racial routine is a gimmick," he went on. Dezenhall compared it to the "Mission Accomplished" banner that symbolized a premature Iraq war victory celebration for President George W. Bush.

"Only it works better, largely because people want it to work; they like the whole theater of healing."

A striking 80 percent of respondents were aware of Obama's comments about the Gates-Crowley dispute in a Pew Research Center poll out Thursday.

The president's approval ratings, down overall, slipped markedly among whites in the days after Obama weighed in on the dispute: to 46 percent from 53 percent before he spoke on the matter.

In the same period, his approval went up among racial minorities and Hispanics after his comments ‚ to 74 percent from 63 percent before he talked about it.

The July 16 arrest of Gates for disorderly conduct in his own home prompted the debate over racial profiling and police conduct. Crowley said Gates was belligerent when police showed up to investigate a report of a possible break-in, after Gates forced his own door open. Gates said police presumed a robbery because he was black. Charges against him were dropped.

Absent hard evidence on both sides, did whites reflexively support the sergeant because he's white? Did blacks cry foul because of a hair-trigger sensitivity aboutracism?

Brewskies won't settle those questions, larger ones about race, or any "deep thoughts," as Handey calls the whimsical one-liners he used to read on "Saturday Night Live."

After the beer, there are still missions to be accomplished.

EDITOR'S NOTE  Calvin Woodward has covered politics and national affairs for The Associated Press since 1994.