The victim here is Sgt. Crowley, not professor Gates.
Crowley is the one defamed as a "racist" and "rogue cop." He is the officer whom Gov. Patrick implied perpetrated "every black man's nightmare." He is the cop on the Cambridge force who, Obama told the nation, "acted stupidly."
If anyone has grounds for legal action, it is Crowley. Indeed, upon what grounds would Gates sue?
That he was wrongly arrested, when Crowley, his black partner, the Cambridge P.D., the police union and 1,000 cops would gladly come to Cambridge to testify that Crowley went by the book?
Moreover, no one says Crowley abused Gates in any way. And there were witnesses in the street to the arrest. And Crowley apparently had his mike open, and a recording of the incident exists.
But if Obama's racial reflexes served him badly Wednesday night, his political instincts served him well him on Friday. For he must have sensed that this confrontation was shaping up as three powerful black men coming down hard on a white cop with a stellar record who had only done his conscientious duty.
Obama picked up the phone, called Crowley, regretted his choice of words about him and the Cambridge P.D., walked into the press room and told the nation Crowley was a "good guy," he himself had misspoken, that he and the sergeant had talked about getting together for a beer.
It was a goodly slice of humble pie the president ate there, but it was a class act. To ask more would be churlish. As for Patrick and Gates, they, too, should eat a little crow.
The president's decision to go before the White House press corps also suggests Obama is acutely aware of the political peril here.
For while his black support is rock solid, his white support is soft. And Americans will usually side with an Irish cop over a Harvard don, especially when the professor is pulling rank and the cop is right.
"This isn't about me," says Gates. Sorry, professor, it is about you. You have shown the country why William F. Buckley won laughter all over America when he wittily observed that, rather than be governed by the Harvard faculty, he would prefer to be governed by the first 300 names in the Cambridge telephone directory.