Obama "Fascinated" by Interest in Afternoon Beer

Updated 3:42 p.m. Eastern Time

President Obama said this afternoon that he is "fascinated by the fascination" with his planned beer late this afternoon with Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Cambridge police sergeant James Crowley.

Following a meeting with President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo of the Philippines, Mr. Obama told reporters that he "will be surprised if you guys all make this the lead as opposed to a very important meeting that we just had with one of our most important partners in the world, but the press has surprised me before."

The comment prompted laughter, but it's safe to assume that the president will be "surprised" this evening. His planned meeting with Gates And Crowley has generated enormous media interest, with speculation over everything from what will be said to what beer will be served.

Indeed, those watching the president's comments about the meeting on CNN or MSNBC this afternoon could also see a clock in the lower right-hand corner of the screen counting down the hours until the beer summit.

Wait, did we say beer summit? Perhaps that should be scratched: The president said this afternoon that he's not a big fan of the phrase.

"I notice this has been called the 'beer summit,'" he told reporters. "It's a clever term but this is not a summit, guys. This is three folks having a drink at the end of the day, and hopefully giving people the opportunity to listen to each other. And that's really all it is."

"This is not a university seminar," Mr. Obama continued. "It is not a summit. It's an attempt to have some personal interaction when an issue has become so hyped and so symbolic that you lose sight of just the fact that these are people involved, including myself, all of whom are imperfect, and will hopefully instead of ginning up anger and hyperbole, everybody can just spend a little bit of time with some self reflection and recognizing that other people have different points of view."

The president attempted to play down the meeting, telling reporters that "this idea was prompted when I was talking with prompted with Sgt. Crowley and he said, 'maybe I'll have a beer in the White House someday,' and I said, 'well, I'm sure that can be arranged."

But the event has become a magnet for press and those seeking it; Rev. Al Sharpton announced this afternoon that he will hold a media availability afterward, and interest groups from the The Woman's Christian Temperance Union to Pray at the Pump have used it to push their agendas. (They don't want the White House to serve alcohol.)

And Mr. Obama himself is a major part of the reason the story has gotten so much play: At the end of an otherwise sober press conference largely focused on health care last Wednesday, the president suggested the Cambridge police department had acted "stupidly" in arresting Gates in his home.

He later walked back those comments, but what had been a relatively small story immediately blew up, pushing the president's health care reform efforts from the headlines.

The White House appears conflicted about the event, and is not offering reporters much access: It was announced early this afternoon that reporters will have only 40 seconds to view the festivities and will be kept 40 feet away. Gates and Crowley may or may not speak to the press following the meeting, and Mr. Obama is not planning to make a statement.