It was a typical summer afternoon, yesterday in Washington, D.C. Temperatures in the 90s, muggy.
And sitting out on the lawn —the White House lawn— were President Barack Obama, Vice-President Joe Biden, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and sergeant on the Cambridge, Massachusetts, police force, James Crowley.
Obama and Biden were in shirt sleeves, rolled up. Gates and Crowley were wearing dark suits.
June Christy once sang about a hot day when she drank "something cool". The professor and the sergeant and the President and Vice-President all reached for something cool: beer.
The impetus for the so-called beer summit was the President's ill-chosen words on a police incident. And bigotry's historical and continuing pervasive hold on American society, regardless of the specifics of the Cambridge incident.
The blogosphere was aTwit with furious scribbling. Obama, in drinking beer, was shamelessly adopting a common-man stance. Radio talk host Glenn Beck accused Obama of deep-seated hatred of white people.
Historian Maureen Ogle in the Washington Post:
It was never going to be just a round of beers -- not when it was being served at the White House to a black (and part Irish) Harvard professor, a white police officer (also boasting Irish roots) and the mixed-race president of the United States.
Instead, it became a glass of racial politics, with an aftertaste of class warfare.
Ogle exclaimed that the meeting was not about the beer. Well, yes, but no. The White House picnic was a teachable moment for beer.
Fans of fuller-flavored, so-called 'craft' beers, were indignant at the beer choices. Obama drank Bud Light; Gates, Samuel Adams Light; Crowley, Blue Moon; and Biden, Buckler, a non-alcoholic beer, an oxymoron for some. This smacked a bit of elitism (our choices are so much better than yours) and ignored the employment offered by at least three of these breweries to thousands of Americans. (Buckler is produced by Heineken, a Netherlands-based company.)
Employees of the Flying Dog Brewery had fun with the situation. The brewery is located in Frederick, Maryland, 40 miles or so from Washington, D.C. They marched on the White House, chanting "Think globally, drink locally."
Before yesterday, how many Americans knew that Budweiser is no longer American-owned? How many Americans assumed that Blue Moon was a Belgian beer, rather than a beverage brewed by Coors (which itself is owned by Molson). How many Americans knew that the only American-owned breweries today are the smaller 'craft' breweries, the largest of which is Boston Beer Company, brewer of Sam Adams?
Before yesterday, I'd venture not many. Today, many more.
In the opening lines to his piece on the moment and its meaning, John Dickerson at on-line Slate Magazine wrote:
Sometimes a beer is just a beer—except in politics, where beer may signify any old thing we want it to. It is the most abused of all the spirits. Since the early '70s, the typical voter has often been referred to as Joe Six-Pack. Beer made the cover of Newsweek magazine as part of a discussion of whether candidate Barack Obama (represented by a leaf of arugula) could connect with the common man (represented by a frosty mug). This was an extension of the political sorting technique of describing Democratic candidates who appeal to upscale voters as "wine track" candidates and those who appeal to blue-collar voters as being on the "beer track."
The point wasn't so much what brand of beer was served, but that it was beer that was served.
At the end of a hard day, who wouldn't like to be asked: "Hey, how about a cold beer?" That's an invitation to refreshment, fellowship, happy satisfaction. The White House picnic demonstrated, to a world-wide audience, the social utility of not-so-humble beer.
Somewhere, Jeremy Bentham is smiling at President Obama.