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 alcoholic beverages *. 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." George W. Bush, according to some, was a more appealing candidate than Al Gore because a poll showed that he was the candidate people would prefer to have a beer with.
So what are we to make of President Obama's invitation to professor Henry Louis Gates and Sgt. James Crowley for a beer Thursday night at the White House? First, like the whole Gates-Crowley affair, this beer detente is another infusion in this summer's stimulus act for columnists (it's a bipartisan bill; Sarah Palin has done her part as well). The night is also a boon to headline writers: The Prof and Cop Hops Stop! Hot Heads Share a Frosty! Prof, Cop Quaff With Barack After Squawk.
But is there any meaning to squeeze out of the choice of beverage? Serving sherry would not have been the right call. The president has already been accused of siding with the professor. So did he choose beer to compensate? During the campaign, when Obama was seen as the "wine track" candidate, he worked to correct that impression by having a beer in front of the cameras.
During the campaign, the beer metaphor was sometimes apt—Obama did have trouble with white working-class voters—and sometimes highly imperfect. Obama beat Hillary Clinton in Wisconsin, arguably the most beer-sodden state: home of Schlitz, Miller and City Brewing, and birthplace of Pabst. The Bush-and-beer trope was even more imperfect. In the "poll" conducted by brewer Samuel Adams, Bush barely beat Gore (40 percent to 37 percent)—statistically, it was a tie. Plus, if Bush was the candidate people most wanted to have a beer with, wouldn't he have won the popular vote? (And then there's the theory that the majority on the Supreme Court was drinking beer when it ruled in Bush v. Gore, but that's another matter.)
But the problems with this metaphor go even deeper. Beer may be the drink of the "regular guy," but it is not only the drink of the regular guy. There is plenty of elitism in beer these days. The next time you're at Whole Foods, count how many seconds it takes before a man wearing a golf shirt, no socks, and loafers is standing beside you examining the shelves of expensive foreign and microbrewed beers. Wine, meanwhile, has been moving in the other direction, though of course there have always been bargain-basement brands: Thunderbird, MD 20/20, Night Train, and Boone's Farm.
When Obama announced that he would have a Budweiser on Thursday night, it suggested he was going for the most regular-guy brand he could find. (It sells for about $6.50 for a six-pack.) But it turns out that the cop likes the same kind of fancy beer the professor does: He's having a Blue Moon, a Belgian-Style witbier ($7 to $9 a six-pack), while Gates is having a Red Stripe ($7) or Becks ($8). Upon this affinity for upmarket beers may be built a towering reconciliation.
The thing with beer is that it's about not class but diffusion. Obama wants to lessen tensions, so he's picked the drink of the backyard and the ballgame. Whether you light your grill by pressing a button or dumping a can of lighter fuel on briquettes, you probably have a beer nearby. If Thursday night's group therapy were playing out in any suburban American home, the next move after getting the beers would be for Obama to show the two men his new flat-screen TV.
Beer is the antithesis of the strutting and overreacting that gripped all three male actors in this drama (unless you drink too much, and then it is the enabler of those impulses). "Maybe it's a guy thing," said Wendy Murphy, lawyer for Lucia Whalen, explaining why her client—whose 911 call brought Crowley to Gates' house—was not invited to beer night.
There is a rich history of beer at the White House. George Washington drank it after battle. Thomas Jefferson brewed it at Monticello. During Prohibition, "Beer for Prosperity" was the cry of those who saw repeal as a way to create jobs and raise taxes, and Franklin Roosevelt ran on that platform. At the 1932 Democratic National Convention, he pledged to end dry laws "just as fast as the Lord will let us authorize the manufacture and sale of beer." Eric Felten, author of How's Your Drink, says that when that happened, breweries delivered their first batches to the White House, where Eleanor Roosevelt had promised to have the newly legal beer served.
During Nixon's first term, when political aide Chuck Colson was courting the Teamsters union, he invited a host of members for lunch in the White House mess. They ordered beer with their Mexican food and were served Michelob, which happened to be distributed by nonunion labor. Thirst triumphed over politics, however, and everyone imbibed.
In entertaining Gates and Crowley, Obama will probably not be able to match Lyndon Johnson, who also used beer to break the ice in tense situations. Johnson used to take reporters on "speed and beer" drives on his ranch. He'd pop some cold ones and race off into the dust of the ranch. Obama can't do this, obviously—as spacious as the White House grounds are, they're no LBJ ranch—but even if he tried, Crowley would have to arrest him. And that's how this mess started in the first place.
Correction, July 31, 2009: This article originally implied beer was a spirit. Technically a spirit is a liquid that has been distilled, whereas beer is produced by fermentation. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)