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. Burly

    This was a horriblly stupid thing to say, period. And still, people justify it. It's not "okay" and it's not cool. It's amateur-hour! Someone needs to tell Obama that he WON and to stop campaigning and start being President. Enough with the TV appearances, and the Hollywood tours, and the rousing speeches. GO DO YOUR JOB!

    March 20, 2009 10:37 am at 10:37 am |
  2. Ronan

    We all make gaffes! Stand up the one who has not!

    March 20, 2009 10:37 am at 10:37 am |
  3. Donny

    I am glad to see that the Obama supporters are saying that we all need to have thicker skin and have a sense of humor. I do agree with this. However, next time someone draws a cartoon that is controversial, maybe you shouldn't be demanding that they be fired because you interpretted it differently than the cartoonist intended. Sometimes a joke is just a joke and a cartoon is just a cartoon.

    March 20, 2009 10:37 am at 10:37 am |
  4. Bob the Observer

    While I agree that the media would be all over Bush for saying this, I think it's all much ado about nothing. It was a joike, folks. It was funny.

    21st century Americans have to be some of the thinnest-skinned people in history. What a bunch of whiners and complainers! Maybe what we need is a new influx of politically and culturally insensitive jokes to toughen us up a little.

    Next time Obama is on a talk show (and it will probably be, oh, Conan Obrien next time), I suggest he says instead that his bowling scores are "gay." That would be much more fun.

    Then he can tell an Aggie joke or two, a polish joke, and finish off with one about women drivers.

    Half of the PC crowd will die of strokes, and we can get on with what's important in life.

    March 20, 2009 10:37 am at 10:37 am |
  5. Matthew, Detroit

    His congress is running wild and handing out bonus's.

    Then to correct the problem they are changing tax codes.

    Yep good think the idiot boy is hanging out in LA with Jay Leno.

    This guy really does not know how to do anything but campaign.

    Someone tell the moron he won the election....

    Oh thats right he does not know how to lead might as well start my

    campaign for 2012... And I can use the 600K donated from AIG

    March 20, 2009 10:37 am at 10:37 am |
  6. get real

    HEY MIKE IN PA,
    The American people lost. Check out your paycheck in the next few years, taxes taxes taxes my friend. You and your peeps have got to be stupid if you think taxes won't go up on everyone. forget the 250+ crowd, which isn't very much anyway if you live in NYC, LA, San Fran, and such, but just you wait, the tax man is coming to a small town in PA very soon. Best of luck to you.

    March 20, 2009 10:37 am at 10:37 am |
  7. Norom

    Well, look on the bright side. He could have been joking about
    looking for WMD's under his couch..Nope, none here.

    March 20, 2009 10:38 am at 10:38 am |
  8. Sue

    Apparently, he didn't bring his teleprompter with him.

    March 20, 2009 10:38 am at 10:38 am |
  9. Kathryn Sowder

    Not offensive at all. He was on an entertainment show, not a world-wide summit meeting. This guy can't even crack a joke without apologizing to 30 people.

    March 20, 2009 10:38 am at 10:38 am |
  10. John

    I can't beleive I voted for this peice of crap. I am whole heartadly regretting my vote, we have been duped...

    March 20, 2009 10:39 am at 10:39 am |
  11. Bruce

    This just serves to underline the fact that if you are going to be humourous, you're going to insult people...it's important that we should understand the nature of humour... Case in point, Don Rickles...

    March 20, 2009 10:39 am at 10:39 am |
  12. Jonathan

    To Larry from Apex, North Carolina ... It's secede, not succeed, and rogue, not rouge. Learn at least one language before disparaging the intelligence of people from another state.

    March 20, 2009 10:39 am at 10:39 am |
  13. bill

    cnn if you have me blocked out then say so.221 have been posted since mine and mine was simple to the point.if you arent going to post my remarks then tell me i am tired of it

    March 20, 2009 10:40 am at 10:40 am |
  14. Ross

    Give me a break! Before any able-bodied people get bent out of shape with what I am about to say, keep in mind that I have been disabled all my life and grew up taking part in many local Special Olympic events and raising funds for those events as well.... that being said: Last night when he made this "gaffe", there was no one in my living room laughing harder than myself and a friend of mine who has also taken part in many of the last decades World Special Olympics. Why? IT WAS FUNNY! Can we please move on and talk about something that really matters instead of getting so upset on the behalf of the disabled, about a joke about the Special Olympics or the disabled that even the disabled found funny?

    March 20, 2009 10:40 am at 10:40 am |
  15. tonkaslim

    So much love and forgiveness! Finally, an end to political correctness! Now we can all stop censoring ourselves, safe with the knowledge that our words will not be used out of context to attack us. What a blessed reconciliation the President has inadvertently created. He is special!

    March 20, 2009 10:40 am at 10:40 am |
  16. Abby

    I agree with Carol. I think that he just used a poor choice of words. I should feel really insulted because I'm someone who has a relative with a disability, works in Special Education, and coaches Special Olympics. It was just a poor choice of words. President Obama is not trying to say anything bad about people with special needs. I'm more insulted by the reporter on CNN who uses the word ret**ded.

    March 20, 2009 10:40 am at 10:40 am |
  17. robert hoy

    I have a daughter in special olympics. I was offended. Well the american people got what they wanted. They eleced a sound bite for president. Thank u american people. remember change for change sake is sometims not a good think. ask germany in 1931. they want change. they got it ...hmmm i think it was hitler
    nuf said

    March 20, 2009 10:41 am at 10:41 am |
  18. Nicholas

    And here come the Obama-haters! All you people calling him disgraceful and 'dumb' for his comment, big flippin' deal! People make comments ALL the time that are out of the pocket. He's no different. You are all pouncing on the man for this little comment, yet heard NOTHING else he said in the interview. He apologized, most of you are right winged Christian (I am, but not a right winger) do like Jesus, forgive and move on.

    March 20, 2009 10:42 am at 10:42 am |
  19. EC

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

    Wow, he was self-depreciating and he didn't make up any words!

    March 20, 2009 10:43 am at 10:43 am |
  20. Dave

    The reason Obama is "campaigning" and going on these shows is because he's trying to get his message out there and build consumer confidence. Consumer confidence is one of the main things that's slowing down our economy at the moment. I would THINK that most people would be smart enough to understand the tactics and strategy of what Obama is doing, but apparently I've given some people too much credit.

    March 20, 2009 10:44 am at 10:44 am |
  21. JMB

    Obama is a breath of fresh air (and America sure as heck needed it). I think that he's sincere in his apology and meant no disrespect to disabled people. How many of us have made this type of comment ourselves – I know I have. I think it's great that he can relate to the public from any venue – from the seriousness of a press conference to laughing it up a bit with Leno. He's human, he's down to earth and doesn't see himself as "above" anyone – in that I mean he doesn't think he should be more privileged than anyone else. He's an extremely intelligent man with America's best interest at heart but he's still a "regular guy" too.

    March 20, 2009 10:45 am at 10:45 am |
  22. aBigHeadacheFromU

    Thank God our President is Human, Unlike the Aliens running our country for the past 8 years,, anyone got a problem with it move to the MOON! trying to be so perfect in an imperfect world is Distasteful Period

    March 20, 2009 10:45 am at 10:45 am |
  23. N

    People sure seem forgiving of Obama even though he's making mistakes left and right

    March 20, 2009 10:46 am at 10:46 am |
  24. Glenn

    President Obama has been spending too much time around the original gaffeman Joe Biden. I would have expected something like this from Joe.

    What was the purpose of the trip to California? Instead of going on
    the Tonight Show our president should be in Washington working on the nation's economy.

    March 20, 2009 10:48 am at 10:48 am |
  25. Terry Smith

    Little less focus on these meaningless stories. Why is he on Leno in the first place? Doesn't he have bigger fish to fry?

    March 20, 2009 10:48 am at 10:48 am |
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