Boy, have I been there! Not quite as earth-shakingly, as in the "stupid" heard round the world a few days ago, but definitely in my own way.
It's hard to get used to the idea, whether you are a politician or another kind of public figure (like a minister), that your words, your careless, angry, delighted, public words, have a great deal of power. Not the kind of power you might want, either, but the kind of power that gets you in hot water.
Years ago in a parish far far away, my congregation was voting on a matter of some controversy. I had advised one particular path but how much support I had for that position among members---well, it wasn't enough to get me past the faux pas of audibly saying "YES!" with a both-thumbs-up when the vote approved my recommendation.
Dissidents felt immediately angry with me; supporters felt embarrassed by my lapse; I felt defiant initially, then embarrassed, then humbled enough to offer an apology.
Rookie ministers have this huge lesson to learn: the power of our words, even when nobody seems to be paying attention and they've all fallen asleep in the pews, is far greater than we expect it to be. Say something snarky, say something politically incorrect, say something stupid, say something too revealing, say something anyone can misinterpret----you will be on the hot seat. You don't have to be in the pulpit to say stupid things; you can be at a potluck or just talking to a staff member or teaching a class. You might just be in the grocery line and there isn't a parishioner in sight----if somebody knows you're a minister, you're ON and don't you forget it!
So I sympathize with President Obama. He shot from the hip and scattered a lot of buckshot around, some of it hitting him in places he didn't intend. In fact, he probably didn't intend any of it. This is a guy who has been trying, for God's sake and that of the American people, to get some movement on health care reform; he's been tactfulizing his words for weeks now.
Losing it in public and using a naughty word like "stupid" is not too surprising, after what he's been working on and with whom he's been working. "Stupid" probably actually refers to some of the roadblocks that have been thrown up by his opponents, but Sgt. Crowley, poor guy, took it in the shorts. Neither Crowley nor Gates had any extra tact going on themselves, Gates just home from a trip and Crowley trying to do his job.
One thing that has struck me in all this is that a neighbor apparently turned Gates in. A neighbor? Didn't the neighbor recognize the guy? What kind of a neighborhood is this where people don't recognize the folks who live across the street or next door? No wonder Crowley was suspicious. And no wonder Gates was peeved.