March 20th, 2009
10:48 AM ET
9 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. Dennis

    I bowled a 129 last night too. It was like I was half black or something.
    Oh, I'm sorry. I did not mean to disparage people of color, I was just poking fun at myself.

    March 20, 2009 10:32 am at 10:32 am |
  2. lindsay

    Just tells you what he actually thinks about those with mental disabilities. If a someone made a comment that Blacks are built differently in their muscles or something like that he would be looking
    for another job no matter how hard he apologized–oh wait–that is
    what happened to Jimmy the Greek and anyone else that would be
    so stupid to make fun of the black race. But its OK to make fun of those who are mentally challenged. I'll bet he even laughed when he
    saw Gov Palin's son.

    March 20, 2009 10:32 am at 10:32 am |
  3. J in NJ

    I thought BHO was smarter than this. By making this comment he said "special olympic' bowlers are not good at bowling. While I realize he was trying to say I suck at bowling that is not what came out. I am sure teleprompter counseled him afterward.

    March 20, 2009 10:33 am at 10:33 am |
  4. bobJonson

    Obama you are the President of the United States. It's time for you to act Presidential. Not crack inappropriate jokes on national TV.

    Yes, Bush wasn't the greatest President, he may even have been the worst in modern history. Yet, I can't imagine him saying something like the comment Obama made.

    I have a disability, you never make jokes on the disabled. Never.

    March 20, 2009 10:33 am at 10:33 am |
  5. John, Rochester MN

    It's unfortunate when somebody has to apologize for an inoccuous remark meant in self-deprecation just because it might offend a few people, most of which have nothing to do with the Special Olympics in the first place. it's a funny remark and should be taken as such. And yes, if Bush had said it, I would have said the same thing. Humor should not be partisan.

    March 20, 2009 10:33 am at 10:33 am |

    To RJ in NYC:
    Anyone is welcome to record my remarks, because I think before I speak.
    Also, I was not elceted to hold the highest office in the land. If he doesn't like being under the microscope he should quit. He knew what the job like before he ran for it.

    March 20, 2009 10:34 am at 10:34 am |
  7. Anna, Missouri

    This is another non-issue that the media will try to make headlines about. I am a parent of a special needs child. I watched the show and I, nor my child was offended. We have a president that put a large amount of money into the stimulus package for schools to help special needs children in schools. This was a huge improvement compared to the last several years, when No Child Left Behind was so underfunded. We, as parents that are on the front lines everyday working with the schools to try to see to it that our children are educated, truly appreciate what he has done. This remark does not hurt him in our eyes. He is human!!! He also cares deeply about the children.

    March 20, 2009 10:34 am at 10:34 am |
  8. LAW

    I rest my case: To the poster who claims Limbaugh made fun of Michael Fox–you have been suckered by the media. Had you cared enought to give a careful listen in context to the way that all came down you would understand how this was deliberatley twisted and distorted by the media. But you don't really care about truth, do you?

    Also, good move. Try to defelt any legitimate criticism about Obama by pointing to something else. Just like when little Billy gets scolded by mom, you cry out: "But Jimmy did worse than I did!"

    March 20, 2009 10:34 am at 10:34 am |
  9. Wanda H.

    Just wondering who pays for the President to appear on a variety show.

    March 20, 2009 10:35 am at 10:35 am |
  10. db

    We should stop talking about this minor issue, however insensitive and inappropriate it is. This is distracting us from our most urgent : the economy.

    Did anybody else notice when Obama named our most pressing issues, he mentioned healthcare and education but didn't mention the economy?

    March 20, 2009 10:35 am at 10:35 am |
  11. Teairra (well educated)

    People it is not that serious... Okay he made a mistake but have you not? most of yall are just mad because the time has come and we have a black in the wh!!!

    March 20, 2009 10:35 am at 10:35 am |
  12. Joe

    Gaffes and slip ups like this give insight into what people of power really think & say behind closed doors. No matter what kind of apologies he issues after the fact, we now know how he really feels towards the disabled.

    March 20, 2009 10:35 am at 10:35 am |
  13. Theresa

    When we try to treat the President of the United States of America with less decorum than deserved than he will not be taken seriously. By agreeing to go on the tonight Show, I believe he is lowering the standards set up before him by presidents before him. He is not a movie star, a comedian or a rock star so he needs to stop trying to get the laughs and start to get the country out of this mess. This is what he was elected to do, not be a celebrity!

    March 20, 2009 10:36 am at 10:36 am |
  14. eric in texas

    As has been stated, if this was Bush, every left wing, tree hugging, whale saving, 2 legged 3 eyes pinstripped hairy toad loving idiot would be on tv, radio and internet calling for his head. But, hey Barack OJesus, or the Saviour formerly known as POTUS can get away with it.

    But, alas, I kinda understand him. When you work with the folks in the house and the senate ALL day, you probably feel like you're in the Special Olympics.

    March 20, 2009 10:36 am at 10:36 am |
  15. Sandra

    This has got to be one of the stupidest arguements in the history of stupid arguements. To all the sane rational people out there who understand that the presidents comment was a jab at his own bowling skills or lack there of, I say good for you for having good common sense. It amazes me how stupid people can be by jumping on a band wagon that has no wheels and trying to ride it for all its worth.

    March 20, 2009 10:36 am at 10:36 am |
  16. LIP

    Bush would have been drawn and quartered and dispersed to the four corners of the nation for anything even remotely similar.
    But all this aside, we will turn the other cheek as we have all to often.
    By the way, happy birthday GOP. Way back when democrats promoted slavery, a group of people decided we needed someone to protect the rights of Blacks, forming a more perfect union by creating the Republican party and thereby making it possible for Obama to become president today.

    March 20, 2009 10:36 am at 10:36 am |
  17. Mari

    As I read the outrage-by-the-far-right, mean, rude, criticism that is typical of the GOPers, I realize that the far-right leaders have said worse and that BUSH was one big gaffe after another!

    The far-right-folks incessantly complain, demean, about everything and anything Obama does. And they ignore the FACT that a GOP president destroyed our Nation!

    @ JB......... honestly, Bush made SO many gaffes that it pained us to listen to him speak!

    About the tele-prompter comments, you people have obviously not listened to Obama at a Town Hall meeting, nor watched as he was interviewed.

    GOPers keep up the vitriolic remarks, it will help the Democrats be reelected in 2010 and 2012!

    The GOP members of Congress have a 19% approval rating. America is aware of who the ....... Grand Obstructionist Party is.

    March 20, 2009 10:36 am at 10:36 am |
  18. Juanita

    Would it have been a problem if he had compared his score to a person who is a bad bowler? No. Then why do we make a bid deal because he compared his poor bowling capability to Special Olympics. Do the country, or at least the people who are making a big deal over this, have a problem with people who have special needs? I have a grand-daughter who have special needs? Do we laugh at her misteps just as we laugh at the missteps of all of the grandchildren? Yes. Why? Because we don't want her to feel as if she is any different than any of the other grandchildren. As a a result, she is finishing her first year in college. Something that not all of the other grandchildren have done. Special needs people do not want to be treated with kid gloves, they want to be loved, nutured and corrected when they are wrong just as the other of us regular folks; if you can define regular anymore. Everyone seems to be "hung up" over one thing or the other. Let's get over it and move on!

    March 20, 2009 10:36 am at 10:36 am |
  19. Jack

    We all know liberals think that these children should be aborted anyway. He's just playing to his constituency.

    March 20, 2009 10:36 am at 10:36 am |
  20. Rob

    Sounds like Obama needs some sensitization training. Oh well, we know when your black or biracial in his case you can say, think, and do anything you want, and it's A-OK to just say "I made an Oopsie. Sorry." Now, if Don Imus had said this or McCain or Bush or McConnell or any white person, why the NAACP, the DNC, and Obama himself would call the remark into question. Stay tuned, everyone. Eventually, you're going to have to acknowledge that the IS in What IS? means what it sounds like. Prejudice and underlying bias.

    March 20, 2009 10:37 am at 10:37 am |
  21. Gabriel

    I agree that if Mr. Bush had made this remark he would have been slaughtered. However, in good faith President Obama has apologized quickly and proactively – President Obama – I was surprised you did the Leno Show – I know you are a leader and creating some positive energy however Jay is only out for Jay........
    CNN will after all 'make hay' though because that seems to be the nature of the news organization today.
    Just the Larry King coverage of the tragic death of Natasha Richardson confirms the 'trash' news that is CNN daily.

    March 20, 2009 10:37 am at 10:37 am |
  22. RAY IN NJ

    Common now, use some sense! We know Obama is not a cynical, mean-spirited person. This is nothing compared to Bush's gaffes. If Obama were making comments about the participants in the Special Olympics I could see justification for an uproar, but he wasn't. I don't know if it's the times or hi color – but I find it curious that, literally, his every word and movement is watched and criticized! The man has been president for only 2 months, and folks are still in a tizzy! He is held to a different standard than most. I've always said that he will have to do twice as much as any other president and get less than half the credit! It's the same scenario in the boardroom I've seen when person of color is in charge.

    March 20, 2009 10:37 am at 10:37 am |
  23. Buzzell from New Hampshire

    Obama sinks himself a little more every day. Truley ...being on the Leno Show showing who he is and just how blind he is to whats important to the American people. I

    March 20, 2009 10:37 am at 10:37 am |
  24. Alfred E Neumann

    What should one expect from someone four years removed from the Illinois State Senate with little or no political accomplishments.

    March 20, 2009 10:37 am at 10:37 am |
  25. Ghost

    If you wanna talk about bad statements, how bout the one where Mrs. Bush (the older one) said that those Katrina victims, sleeping in the Superdome probably never had it so good.

    Bet you all were soooo outraged at that one, huh?

    March 20, 2009 10:37 am at 10:37 am |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32