What is truth?

The phrase, spoken by Pontius Pilate as he tried to sidestep his role in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, is one of history’s most infamously cynical utterances.

Obviously, there are clear delineations of truth and falsehood. Right and wrong. Wisdom and foolishness.

But it’s the mark of a wise individual to know that the path to such clarity is not always a quick process. In fact, getting at “the truth” of an interaction can prove to be a never-ending journey.

All of which brings me to President Barack Obama’s surprisingly block-headed foray last week into a police investigation, when he said that police acted “stupidly” in arresting Henry Louis Gates Jr.

It all began with a report of a possible break-in at the Cambridge, Mass. home of Gates, a Harvard professor and friend of Obama.

The saga has been exhaustively chronicled by now. After a long trip, Gates did not have a key that he needed and was struggling to get into his own home. When police came to question him, Gates had an emotional explosion and got himself arrested for disorderly conduct (a charge later dropped).

Thereafter, the he said/cop said back-and-forth sprang forth.

Having written thousands of blurbs, briefs, stories and in-depth reports on incidents involving police in my journalism career, I learned long ago that what is written in reports and what actually happened can range from relatively faithful renderings of events to misleading, incomplete and even patently false accounts signed and approved by “officials” in authority.

Flawed as reports can be, the fact is that the President hadn’t even read the Cambridge Police report. So he wasn’t even close to a starting point of having an informed view of how the police department behaved–or at least claimed that it had behaved.

And he hadn’t spoken to Gates, nor had he conferred with the arresting officer, Sgt. James Crowley. And even if he had sat down the two in his Oval Office and asked for a recap, he would have received incomplete, self-serving accounts.

As I knew he would do the moment I heard his remark at the White House press conference, Obama has backpedaled from his criticism of Crowley.

But the egg on Obama’s face reveals this truth: it’s infinitely more prudent to acknowledge the limits of your knowledge than to confirm the lengths of your ill-informed, knee-jerk, know-it-all foolishness.

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