WASHINGTON — "If you ever reach total enlightenment while drinking beer, I bet it makes beer shoot out your nose," the philosopher Jack Handey once theorized.
A messy eureka moment like that was not on tap for the White House beer drinkers Thursday evening.
President Barack Obama's get-together with black Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. and white police Sgt. James Crowley was less about reaching for racial enlightenment than about helping Obama change the topic.
His approval ratings are sagging and his proposed health care overhaul is a momentous struggle.
His snap judgment that Cambridge, Mass., police "acted stupidly" in the Gates-Crowley confrontation proved a distraction that, if anything, may have sharpened a racial divide. It certainly got people talking.
Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and the two guests were seen hoisting mugs of beer on a Rose Garden patio, the press given a few minutes to film the meeting but kept far enough away that no chatter could be heard.
Afterward, Crowley said that he and Gates had "agreed to move forward," and Gates said that they would meet again.
Obama has dealt with race at calibrated, infrequent and powerful moments. His historic achievement as the first black president is held out as the obvious and most shining testament to racial progress even as he highlights persistent inequalities and prejudices.
It was his seemingly impromptu dip into roiling waters that he's trying to get out of now, with the dog days of August nigh.
Both protagonists have defended their behavior in the dustup at Gates' home. But in agreeing to come, they signaled willingness to be players in a reconciliation drama.
The White House said in advance that the moment would no doubt be "poignant," a sure sign everything was being managed to achieve poignancy.
"Sure it's a gimmick," said damage-control specialist Eric Dezenhall, "but Obama's gift is making gimmicks look visionary.
"In fact, the whole post-racial routine is a gimmick," he went on. Dezenhall compared it to the "Mission Accomplished" banner that symbolized a premature Iraq war victory celebration for President George W. Bush.
"Only it works better, largely because people want it to work; they like the whole theater of healing."
A striking 80 percent of respondents were aware of Obama's comments about the Gates-Crowley dispute in a Pew Research Center poll out Thursday.
The president's approval ratings, down overall, slipped among whites after Obama weighed in on the dispute: to 46 percent from 53 percent before he spoke on the matter.
In the same period, his approval went up among racial minorities and Hispanics after his comments -- to 74 percent from 63 percent before he talked about it.
The July 16 arrest of Gates for disorderly conduct in his own home prompted the debate over racial profiling and police conduct. Crowley said Gates was belligerent when police showed up to investigate a report of a possible break-in, after Gates forced his own door open. Gates said police presumed a robbery because he was black. Charges against him were dropped.
Absent hard evidence on both sides, did whites reflexively support the sergeant because he's white? Did blacks cry foul because of a hair-trigger sensitivity about racism?
Brewskies won't settle those questions, or larger ones about race.