March 20th, 2009
10:48 AM ET
5 years ago

Obama apologizes for Special Olympics comment

President Obama chats it up with Jay Leno on 'The Tonight Show' on Thursday.
President Obama chats it up with Jay Leno on 'The Tonight Show' on Thursday.

(CNN) – President Obama apologized Thursday night for an offhanded remark during his appearance on The Tonight Show that appeared disparaging toward Special Olympic athletes.

White House officials confirm the president called Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver before the show aired to personally apologize for the remark. One official said Obama expressed his disappointment over the comment and his intention not to humiliate the disabled.

iReport: What do you think about the president's comments?

The comment came midway through Obama's appearance on the late night comedy show, when host Jay Leno quipped about the president's lack of bowling skills: “I imagine the bowling alley [in the White House] has just been just burned and closed down," Leno said.

“No, no. I have been practicing,” Obama said. “I bowled a 129. It's like — it was like Special Olympics, or something."

Watch: CNN's Suzanne Malveaux looks at Obama's Tonight Show appearance

The Special Olympics, founded in 1968, is a nonprofit organization serving people with mental and physical disabilities. The Special Olympics holds its “Special Olympics World Games” every other year.

The White House immediately tried to undo any damage, releasing a statement before the show aired stating the president in no way intended to disparage the Special Olympics."

"He thinks that the Special Olympics are a wonderful program that gives an opportunity to shine to people with disabilities from around the world," Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton said.

Related: Obama mixes politics, comedy on 'Tonight Show'

According to White House officials, Obama also extended an invitation to Special Olympic athletes to come bowl or play basketball at the White House.

Appearing on ABC's Good Morning America Friday Morning, Shriver said Obama was "very sincere" in his apology.

"[He] expressed an openness and an interest in being more engaging in the movement and said he was a fan of the movement," Shriver said. "And I think importantly said he was ready to have some of our athletes over the White House to bowl or play basketball or help him improve his score."

During the campaign season, then-candidate Obama described his bowling skills as “terrible” after scoring 37 when he hit the lanes on the campaign trail in Altoona, Pennsylvania. A perfect score is 300


Filed under: President Obama
soundoff (789 Responses)
  1. tiger2471

    President Obama went to Cali and gave 2-3 Great speeches and the people LOVE him. Governor Arnold S. said Obama was beautiful and thanked him for ALL of the BILLIONS of dollars he is giving the state of California. He goes on Jay Leno and does very well but makes a joke about his bowling score and NOW after this silly joke, a lot of you fools are upset as if he's some cruel shock jock or something, it's UTTERLY RIDICULOUS! Please, use that energy and go look for a JOB if your unemployed and if you have a job do something more constructive with your silly outrage, direct it at the GREED on Wall Street or better yet be a MENTOR to a child with disabilities! It's rather useless if you think berating the President as if he meant to demean people with disabilities. Americans are sad people, it takes nothing to throw you off message and get you ALL in a tizzy over something as meaningless as a joke about his bowling skills! UNBELIEVABLE, but you are not to blame, the MEDIA knows exactly what buttons to push, and it seems as though that is the ONE thing they do very well.

    March 20, 2009 10:24 am at 10:24 am |
  2. Mike in PA

    This was a bad one by Obama.

    By the way ... did Bush ever apologize to the families of the dead and wounded in Iraq when he clowned around at a black tie event about looking for WMD's under his desk?

    Didn't think so.

    March 20, 2009 10:24 am at 10:24 am |
  3. Jay

    For all you people who have been posting what an intelligent, insightful, thoughtful man he is, wake up. Are these the comments of someone who could be described as such? When Mr. Obama goes off his prepared speeeches, fed to him via telepromter, this is what you get, someone who soundsl ike a blundering buffoon, mocking those who have special needs

    March 20, 2009 10:24 am at 10:24 am |
  4. sammieb51

    Look it was a joke OK? Leno and every other comic gets up and makes jokes about all of us, skinny fat black white jew gentile .... give me a break. And it was funny. Great to have a President who can think on his feet and if he feels he stepped over the line, he can say hey, I screwed up, got carried away, sorry folks.

    Now the comment I have never been able to reconcile is "Osama Bin Laden .... I never think about him". And I am still waiting for an apology from ANYONE for that comment.

    March 20, 2009 10:24 am at 10:24 am |
  5. Bob

    Oh what freaking ever. So what, he made a dumb joke. Everybody does. To those posting how angry they are about it, get over it. To those posting here bringing up Republicans, Bush or Cheney, get over it. The time for petty hatred because of labels (Democrat/Republican) needs to end. Political correctness is overblown and is causing everyone to have very thin skin. Everyone needs to grow up and move forward.

    March 20, 2009 10:25 am at 10:25 am |
  6. Crispus

    For those who keep complaining about Obama thinking he better than you typical people just keep in mind that he simply is better than most of you.

    March 20, 2009 10:25 am at 10:25 am |
  7. sally

    One comment should not dominate the coverage of this lengthy appearance - there was much more of substance to talk about

    March 20, 2009 10:25 am at 10:25 am |
  8. Obama 2.0

    Get over it. We can send American children to ill advised wars to become disabled and no one complains, but an off hannded remark they jump out inn the streets. Nothing more than pharasis.

    March 20, 2009 10:25 am at 10:25 am |
  9. Donna

    What was he thinking? I suppose showing up on a late night show is "cool and hip" but we don't need that in a President! We need a serious leader and not some celebrity / comedian want-to-be. How can the other world leaders take us seriously after that stunt? This is what America wants in their leader?

    As a taxpayer, I'm glad to know that my dollars are going to support his bowling game, crested jacket, fuel on AirForce One to fly him to the Jay Leno show, not to mention all the other things we don't even know about. There are people out there that can't put food on their table or a roof over their head stoday, and this is supposed to make them feel better? Above all else, I'm so disappointed that our leader showed such disrespect for the many individuals and families by his flippant comment. I'm sure there was no intended harm but nonetheless it was inappropriate and there is no excuse.

    March 20, 2009 10:25 am at 10:25 am |
  10. elizabeth

    I am sure the president did not mean any malice. Aside from the comment I thought he did a great job on the show. He was very natural and real.

    March 20, 2009 10:26 am at 10:26 am |
  11. kelly WI

    I would advise Obama to get back to DC and get to work but then I remember everytime he does something the economy gets worse. Best he stay away and play with the kids.
    There is no confidence in him from the people that count.
    He has no credibility.
    He can't staff treasury because there is no one with any smarts that will work for him.
    Wheres the outrage for the trillions, not milions, of debt he is dumping on the taxpayes that have to pay for this crap?
    We will be paying more that 165 mil to retain the lawyers when AIG takes this all to court. Beside the fact that this taxing them 90% is against the constitution in 2 places. BHO must have gotten an Afirm. Action law degree.

    March 20, 2009 10:26 am at 10:26 am |
  12. eva in california

    parent of a disabled person, here. former volunteer for the special olympics –the president's comment was unfortunate, but he has apologized. okay.

    i know i've said things i wish i hadn't even in a public forum. no one is perfect. we learn from our mistakes. that said, i watched the interview in its entirety and was unhappily surprised that cnn has not focused on the body of what the president had to say. it was well worth watching. i suggest others do the same.

    it's important that the press look for more than gaffs, sound bites and one line mistakes. gotcha media on the left or the right isn't reporting, its annoying (yes, i made a palin reference on purpous).

    peace and apple pie,

    eva in sunny cal

    March 20, 2009 10:26 am at 10:26 am |
  13. Monica, Texas

    MSM will drive this into the ground like they do so many "other" unimportant matters....I am more concern about the economy.

    March 20, 2009 10:26 am at 10:26 am |
  14. THH

    Has anyone besides me absolutely had it with this eggshell environment of political correctness?

    March 20, 2009 10:26 am at 10:26 am |
  15. David

    Jay, You are full of it. People say the things that they say, I think you are a product of an old way of thinking, I think society as a whole is approaching these things with a more open mind. What is important is that he can say it and not mean it and other people can laugh about it. Just like the monkey cartoon if we look at it for what it is rather then what we are looking for in it.

    March 20, 2009 10:26 am at 10:26 am |
  16. zaphod2000

    TO RJ in NY – Limbaugh made fun of Michael J Fox and his fight with Parkinson disease. That was worse than anything Obama could have said.

    March 20, 2009 10:27 am at 10:27 am |
  17. Rick

    If Bush had made the exact same comment, what would you democrats be saying today?

    March 20, 2009 10:27 am at 10:27 am |
  18. Leni

    While what Obama said was probably just a silly attempt to be funny – after all, he did the show to get close to his fan base – as President he had no business being there. I had a feeling he'd do something like this as he'd be without his trusty teleprompter. What is really amazing is to see the reaction of the press. If a Republican had done this there would be calls for their resignation. The late night comedians would have a field day. Somehow I doubt anyone will touch this tonight. More pathetic than his bowling or narcissistic need for the spotlight is his hypocritical outrage over the AIG bonuses...since his party crafted the bill that gave them the loophole, his congress rushed it through, having no time to read it, at his urging and he signed it without knowing what was in it. And the American People just nod their approval like bobbleheads.

    March 20, 2009 10:27 am at 10:27 am |
  19. Walwus

    People calm down. I do not support any of the decisions Obama has made up to this point and I didn't vote for him but to say you are offended by this comment is utterly stupid, unless you are actually mentally or physically disabled and then that is your right. ANyone else saying they are offended is just spouiting off becasue they can. There are much more things to get on our President for right now, changing health care benefits for our disabled vets comes to mind. Why aren't any of you complaining about that? Oh right, becasue it doesn't violate Political Correctness.

    March 20, 2009 10:27 am at 10:27 am |
  20. T

    Come on people, I have 2 special needs childrens in my family
    What the President said did not move me....he was talking about himself. CNN you are trying to make this out of something.........
    Who wants to cast the first stone? All of you are hypocrite.......
    He was not making fun of special needs people. We know what is in
    his heart and he is a good man. For those who cant handle it
    go away..........

    March 20, 2009 10:27 am at 10:27 am |
  21. Ed

    If those words came out of his mouth... then he meant it !!!

    March 20, 2009 10:27 am at 10:27 am |
  22. Get Well Soon GOP

    With all the good this guy is doing for the nation we should not make a big deal out of this. Why would J want to boil this great interview down to one bad statement?

    March 20, 2009 10:27 am at 10:27 am |
  23. EJ (USA)

    moderator – can u contact me about how to fix certain tech issues? I can't post anything on another part of CNN

    March 20, 2009 10:27 am at 10:27 am |
  24. Independent chicago man age 25

    response to RJ in NYC:

    No I would not feel offended if Bush, Cheney, or any republican in that administration would have said something like this. honestly I pay attention to the bigger stuff not words, I honelty didn't care when bush said his stupid remarks either and thats becasue that all they are. Now bush's actions however now that was an administration full of "special olympics."

    March 20, 2009 10:27 am at 10:27 am |
  25. Trina

    DVD's that won't work in Britain.... the wrong translation on the red button with Russia.....The Tonight Show, with Jay Leno, and making fun of the Special Olympics......a half-staffed administration, with the part that IS staffed filled with tax cheats....an economic recovery plan without substance.... what the heck is going on here? I'm very disappointed.

    March 20, 2009 10:28 am at 10:28 am |
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