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. Bethany

    Why do we need to pick everything apart? He wasn't making fun of anyone... it's just a "saying" and although it might offend some people (even though that was not his intention), what can you say anymore without offending anyone?

    March 20, 2009 09:05 am at 9:05 am |
  2. Adam

    I'm sure the conservative talk radio shows will be all over this. FYI, Sarah Palin cut funding for the Special Olympics in her state. Bush also vetoed a bill with Special Olympic funding, so there!

    March 20, 2009 09:05 am at 9:05 am |
  3. The One

    Can't believe how insensitive Obama can be. Now if someone said the same thing, except substituted African-American for Special Olympics, wow.

    March 20, 2009 09:05 am at 9:05 am |
  4. Rob

    Big deal. It's obvious he was making fun of himself. Give the guy a break, he's trying to fix 8 years of horrendous policy.

    March 20, 2009 09:06 am at 9:06 am |
  5. Brian

    I hope the world is as understanding about all of our "off-hand" remarks. I wonder how many other politicians will get a similar freebie.

    March 20, 2009 09:06 am at 9:06 am |
  6. mike

    how about everybody get a pad and pen out . he's the president and he's human he meant no harm paging johnny knoxville?

    March 20, 2009 09:06 am at 9:06 am |
  7. Kate

    Yes, please let's dump more on Obama. The GOP thinks the man should be chained to his desk until he solves the country's economic problems. This despite the fact that they had a big hand in creating those problems. Then they do their very best to shoot down any solution he brings forth. Now some people are going to beat him up because he accidentally said something that may offend some people. Come on! We've all said something that came out wrong. The difference is that we don't have people out there just waiting to jump on everything we say and make a big deal out of it.

    March 20, 2009 09:06 am at 9:06 am |
  8. Pull the Goalie

    This guy never ceases to amaze me. He can make a remark like that, and no one is going to hold him accountable for it. If it were a GOP who said that, you'd see the left wingers crawling out of the woodwork to make a big fuss about it. So many hypocrits out there.

    March 20, 2009 09:06 am at 9:06 am |
  9. Ratna Swaminathan

    As a parent of a child with autism I was taken aback by President Obama's comment. But I am sure it was not intentional as most of us, sometime or the other, have made statements that have come out wrong. We should not hold it against him. That said, Special Olympics has been a blessing for people with different abilities as it gives them a forum to excel to the best of their capabilities.

    March 20, 2009 09:06 am at 9:06 am |
  10. tonyelle

    no biggie....we need to stop being so sensitive to the OBVIOUS

    March 20, 2009 09:06 am at 9:06 am |
  11. Barbara Campbell

    At it again CNN, looking for something to criticize in President Obama's Leno appearance – an unscripted, connect-with-Americans appearance. It's clear that Obama was describing himself as disabled when it comes to bowling, as are the participants in the Special Olympics, by definition.

    This constant nit-picking by the media is not just undermining President Obama's efforts to unify and lift the American people, it undermines the credibility of the media.

    Obama is following through with his pledge to be available and open with the American people. Given all that he has to say, it's easy to find SOMETHING that might offend SOMEONE.

    America would be a better place if the media would focus on the big picture, rather than this constant microscopic examination (and negative interpretation) of every word.

    March 20, 2009 09:06 am at 9:06 am |
  12. johnsonj3

    I wish that the media would stop making a big deal out of every little comment the President says and turning in to something big. We have a President that like to have fun. I hope that the Special Olympics will understand that he was not making fun of them but of himself. Give our President a break he is a human being.

    March 20, 2009 09:06 am at 9:06 am |
  13. Thomaja

    Should have brought Mr. Teleprompter, Mr. Emptysuit.

    March 20, 2009 09:06 am at 9:06 am |
  14. mike

    the President owes an apology to every parent of a special needs child. the Special Olympics has done great works in making their athletes feel good about themselves and to have pride in their accomplishments. His comments mocks everything they have done. Unforetunately I don't expect the media to hold him accountable. Criticism of HIM is not allowed. HIs minions will rise up in indignation that he is held accountable for his words.

    March 20, 2009 09:07 am at 9:07 am |
  15. Barry The Blade

    It wasn't a very intelligent comment, but at least he spoke it well. He and the teleprompter are such gifted speakers.

    March 20, 2009 09:07 am at 9:07 am |
  16. Kelley

    Find me one person who hasn't said something like that and I'll bail out the government myself.

    March 20, 2009 09:07 am at 9:07 am |
  17. Realistic One

    "The perfect is the enemy of the good" – Voltaire. No man is perfect in every action or words taken, so savor the good that was obtained without throwing everything out. If you are looking for imperfections in everything you will find them and that is what a lot of people have been reduced to out of their own self pity of not having everything done their way.

    No matter what Mr. President does or says, there are going to be millions to find errors only to self promote their unhappiness with President Obama representing the United States of America. The JOB of being President of the U.S. has never had the requirement of being perfect and working 24 hours everyday; even in times of dramatic crisis.

    The only way to not make errors, gaffes, or mistakes is to be still and do nothing at all. At least the HUman (Mr. President) is working to help with our issues instead of burying his head in the sands waiting for the problems to go by and fix themselves. Nor is he complaining about what is wrong without having a complete alternative solution to present.

    His joke/gaffe (as most times he presents one) has directed at him and his skill level and not at the disabilities of others. Comparing himself (which is in the best physical shape) and his bowling skills level to others which have diminished capabilities (and can and have competed better than him with a lack of physical abilities) is a slight complement to them and a jab at himself only. Those who want to nail him to the cross for this and other light hearted HUMAN actions – need to ride on the short bus! (Meaning you, that have, or suppose to have ALL your capacities, but your skills on display makes you look like you need to ride on the little short school buses that are reserved for the mentaly disable because you don't have the sense to let a joke be a joke.)

    March 20, 2009 09:07 am at 9:07 am |
  18. Osmo


    Here come all the democrats "Lighten up, it was just a joke." Yeah, okay. What if Bush had made a comment like that about the Special Olympics? He'd be crucified. But no, Obama does it and it gets brushed aside. I wonder if his teleprompter made him say that, too.

    March 20, 2009 09:07 am at 9:07 am |
  19. Kale Cleaver

    So, his press secretary says he was only making fun of himself. If we put this in prospective:

    If President Obama is standing on a farm in jeans and says, "I look like such a redneck," then says he was only making fun of himself. Is he making fun of himself or rednecks – or both?

    What if he made the same type of comment referring to blacks? Whoa!!

    I know it is hard to see from the outside, but people with special needs do not need people teaching other people to make fun of the handicapped. (We don't need people making fun of rednecks or black people, either! )

    I used to be in the not-understanding crowd when it came to retarded people. Now I know and try to spread the word gently. I don't get mad at people who don't yet understand, but when the president of our country leads by example, it really makes it seem acceptable when it really isn't.

    Thanks for reading my rant. I know many of you will come here to argue in the opposite direction, but all I can do is tell you all that making fun of the handicapped is hurtful to those trying their hardest and those trying to give them the best chance at success. I'm not telling you what you can't say, but I am saying that your words can be very hurtful.

    If my success IS eventually found in the special olympics (I have Down syndrome and my dad is helping me write this), then things like this only degrade the entire experience.

    March 20, 2009 09:07 am at 9:07 am |
  20. jj

    let forth the fake outrage

    March 20, 2009 09:07 am at 9:07 am |
  21. jdp

    Oh who cares... he was just making a joke, it shouldn't be offensive to anyone.

    March 20, 2009 09:07 am at 9:07 am |
  22. whatismyname

    Jeez, is this really THAT big of a deal? One minute Obama is pegged as stiff, the next, he is too loose. I thought it was a pretty good spot for him - he came off likable and confident. He definitely had a poor choice of words to describe his bowling, but it clearly was not disparaging.

    I found an interesting, and humorous, take on this story here:

    March 20, 2009 09:08 am at 9:08 am |
  23. JeremyK

    Looks like he is going to skate by again unharmed. If Bush had made that comment, we would have had mobs and the media would all be talking about it and criticizing him for being so heartless.

    March 20, 2009 09:08 am at 9:08 am |
  24. give me a break!!!

    My goodness everything this man say is always taken the wrong way, the President cant say anything even while joking that the media does not turn into something bad. I'm glad they sent out a correction before the show aired, I can hear the haters making more out of this than need be. What so unfair is that W said so many dumb, stupid and wrong thing but with hardly any rebuttle. CNN if you are going to report on Mr President's apperance on Jay Leno why not report on the good and positive things he said this network is so quick to always I do mean always jump on the wrong part of a story, losers

    March 20, 2009 09:08 am at 9:08 am |
  25. bravado in boston

    It's refreshing to have a "real person" in office who can still lead. After all, my bowling score is a lot like my golf score should be, and my golf score is a lot like my bowling score should be. But, I led over 300 people at any one time in the US Navy.

    Good to know we voted for a "real person" who can lead!

    March 20, 2009 09:08 am at 9:08 am |
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