Steve Chapman

Barack Obama got to be president because he had qualities Americans were yearning for after the bitter tumult of the Bush years. He was calm, sober, fair-minded, and guided by facts rather than emotions. He didn't jump to conclusions, he didn't ignore inconvenient evidence and he didn't blunder into messes. That was the guy we elected last year, and right now, a lot of people miss him.

He was absent Wednesday when a reporter asked his views on the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates. At first, Obama sounded like himself. He acknowledged that Gates is a friend, "so I may be a little biased here" and pointed out helpfully, "I don't know all the facts."

That set him up nicely to forgo further comment on a matter that had nothing to do with the topic of his news conference (health care reform) or his responsibilities. Or, rather, it should have.

Instead, he proceeded to rake one Cambridge police sergeant over the coals for having "acted stupidly," before proceeding to place the episode in the context of the "long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately."

With that, Obama went from president to pundit. We've all heard speculation that Sarah Palin is aiming at a TV career on Fox News. Maybe Obama has his eye on Rachel Maddow's chair.

The Gates story is familiar by now. He arrived home to find his front door jammed. He tried to force the door, before going to the back and using his key. Meanwhile, a neighbor called police to report a burglary.

Sgt. James Crowley arrived to find a man inside. Gates says he complied with a request for identification but was rebuffed when he asked for the cop's name and badge number. Crowley said Gates initially refused to provide an ID and became loud, insulting and verbally threatening. In the end, Crowley arrested him for disorderly conduct, a charge that was dropped, and Gates accused him of racial bias.

We can all agree with Obama on one thing -- he wasn't there and didn't know all the facts. The White House press office tells me the president didn't talk to Gates or read the police report before commenting. Nonetheless, he rushed to conclude that the cop was not only dead wrong but possibly racist. Which sounds like the kind of unthinking snap judgment that leads to racial profiling.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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