WASHINGTON - Just as Congress makes progress on health care legislation, President Barack Obama will have to set aside his top legislative priority to revisit the racially charged issue that stole the spotlight from his health care push last week - the arrest of his Harvard professor friend.
Obama will meet with Cambridge, Massachusetts, police Sgt. James Crowley and Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. at the White House on Thursday, each one chugging his favourite beer, in a public attempt to move past the emotional event.
Obama convened the "beer summit" after calling both men last week in an attempt to defuse the political fallout from his comment at a news conference that police had "acted stupidly" in arresting Gates at his home after responding to a call from a passer-by about a possible break-in
He invited both men over for beer, to be served at a picnic table near his Oval Office if thunderstorms forecast for Thursday hold off.
Gates, who is black, was taken into custody by Crowley, who is white, after Crowley accused him of disorderly conduct for protesting the policeman's actions. The charges were later dropped.
The comments by Obama, the nation's first black president, inflamed matters further, and the subsequent outcry and constant commentary reached such a pitch that he was forced to acknowledge that he could have been more diplomatic with his words.
"Over the last two days as we've discussed this issue, I don't know if you've noticed, but nobody has been paying much attention to health care," Obama lamented to reporters last Friday.
Crowley is looking forward to the meeting, according to a spokeswoman for Cambridge and Massachusetts police unions that support him. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Crowley is bringing family members with him.
"He's aware it's a big opportunity to meet the president, but my friend Jim is a charming guy and I won't be surprised if the president and Professor Gates find him to be as pleasant as he is," added Andy Meyer, one of Crowley's softball teammates.
There was no immediate comment Thursday from Gates.
But the nation did get hear for the first time from Lucia Whalen, the passer-by who placed the phone call to police dispatchers to report a possible break-in at Gates' home. In a trembling voice, Whalen said she was pained to be wrongly labeled a racist based on words she never said. Police said the caller had reported a possible break-in by two black men.
Tapes of the call released this week revealed that Whalen did not mention the race of the suspects. Only when pressed by a dispatcher did she say that one of the two men she saw at Gates' door might have been Hispanic.
Her attorney, Wendy Murphy, said the three men overreacted, while Whalen was the only one who remained cool.
"The three highly trained guys who reacted badly are getting together for a beer," Murphy said. "The one person whose actions have been exemplary will be at work tomorrow in Cambridge. I don't know - maybe it's a guy thing. She doesn't like beer anyway."
It will be Bud Light for Obama, Blue Moon for Crowley and Red Stripe for Gates, the White House says.
Associated Press writers Jay Lindsay in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Glen Johnson in Boston contributed to this report.