Steve Chapman

No one acquainted with the periodic outrages committed by bad cops in Chicago and elsewhere can doubt that law enforcement personnel sometimes grossly abuse their powers. Crowley would not have been the first officer who was ever gratuitously belligerent or insulting.

But we can't really know whom to believe. Gates said he couldn't have screamed at the cop, because of a "bronchial infection." But a photo of Gates in handcuffs looks like a man yelling, not nursing his vocal cords. A neighbor who witnessed the incident told the Boston Herald, "When police asked him for ID, Gates started yelling, 'I'm a Harvard professor. … This is racial profiling.'"

Crowley, who teaches a police academy class on racial profiling, is an unlikely villain. On the other hand, it's hard to imagine the erudite literary scholar bellowing, as the cop said he did, "I'll speak with your mama outside."

Figuring out if Gates or Crowley was at fault, or if both were, is a task a jury hearing hours of testimony might find difficult. It's not something a man with Obama's responsibilities should waste his time on. But if he can't provide an informed opinion, he should do the cop and the public the favor of providing no opinion.

The Obama of the campaign knew the importance of being careful, deliberate and circumspect. After enduring a president who was often just the opposite, the American people also recognized those as valuable traits, and probably hope to see them again in this White House.

Press secretary Robert Gibbs ridiculed the notion that Obama has the option in "nationally televised news conferences to pass on questions like it was a game show." But Friday Gibbs said the president regretted fueling a distraction.

He ought to. Fueling distractions is the job of TV pundits. And in the future Obama might draw on the wisdom of a predecessor, Calvin Coolidge, who attested, "I have never been hurt by anything I didn't say."

Steve Chapman

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

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