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. Louis

    I am a senior citizen who has been disabled for 50 years and I thoroughly enjoyed the Presiden'ts remarks. He made me laugh. Sometimes "humor" is the only thing that can get us through the difficulties if Life. Once you lose your ability to laugh at yourself, you might as well cut off your head.

    Can't laugh at yourself or your predicament? I feel so sorry for YOU!

    March 20, 2009 10:48 am at 10:48 am |
  2. dean

    Wow, how can we possibly fix anything when the best people can do is snipe at each other.

    March 20, 2009 10:49 am at 10:49 am |
  3. Erin

    You who apologize for Obomber, saying "oh, it's just a remark and he's making fun of himself" - what if the quote went something like this:
    “I bowled a 129. It's like — it was like Black Children, or something."

    Special Olympics people are an oppressed minority too, however our esteemed Mr. President is neither.

    March 20, 2009 10:49 am at 10:49 am |
  4. Big Ed

    Get a grip! He made a mistake! Who hasn't? Was it a little insesnitive,probably. There are Special Olypians that bowl much better than he, so let's make sure we keep this in perspective; the man tried to make a joke, in many other circles it may have been considered funny, but he missed the mark, realized he made a mistake and apologized for it. For the love of Pete, it wasn't like he shot someone in the face!

    March 20, 2009 10:49 am at 10:49 am |
  5. State of Tennessee

    Don't blame us. We didn't vote for him. Unfortunately, he is turning out to be even more of a failure than even we expected.

    March 20, 2009 10:49 am at 10:49 am |
  6. Robert

    OMG, did that bastard Bush sell America's sense of humor when he was in office too? If it went to the Chinese it's already been slathered under coats of lead-based paint. There ought to be an investigation or a full blown Congressional inquiry!

    March 20, 2009 10:50 am at 10:50 am |
  7. Clay

    One thing sticks to being true. All you Bush haters just salivated at the mouth when he flubbed up a word or sentence, but all of a sudden quickly come to the defense when it comes from Obama? At least Bush didn't intentionally make asinine remarks about a certain group of people. Talk show or not; the fact is a leader of his stature should watch his P’s and Q’s a little closer in the future.

    March 20, 2009 10:51 am at 10:51 am |
  8. greatman

    We all love Obama. Greatest president ever....Keep at it Obama. I am glad the GOP folks are not happy. We had too much crap from your president for a painfull 8 years. Live with it

    March 20, 2009 10:52 am at 10:52 am |
  9. Louise Riddles

    I truly do not think President Obama meant to offend anyone. I feel really good about his policies and feel he has us on the right track to being financially stable again. As I watched him last I am impressed by his intelligence and sincerity. This was not something I was feeling with former President Bush.

    March 20, 2009 10:53 am at 10:53 am |
  10. Ty from Texas

    Geez folks, get a grip. All of you that are "outraged" are probably the same people that felt like the "Magic Negro" song was funny.

    A man can't even make fun of himself without the wingnuts getting their panties in a bind. A lot worse things have been said on late night TV and I'm, quite frankly, glad to have a president that's not so wrapped in "political correctness" BS to be human. Whether he proports that he bowls like a pro or like a Special Olympics kid, it was nothing more than a comparison.

    Hell, I bet there's some special Olympics bowler out there that's happy as hell because the POTUS bowls like him.

    March 20, 2009 10:53 am at 10:53 am |
  11. Lilarose in Bandon, Oregon

    The media had such a bad news day yesterday that this topic about Pres. Obama's comment about the Special Olympics was the main topic of reports most of the day. I was watching the Leno last night, knowing the comment had been made, but it happened so fast I missed it.

    Media, why don't YOU go to Sacramento and do your homework on finding the homeless along the river homes. And then report why many of the 250 people living there (and growing daily) aren't interested in those found homes.


    Obama should stay away from the press......just don't give interviews. He won't have to worry about being human in his comments (BTW, I am very disabled and the comment didn't bother me) and he can get a heck of alot more work done. Just don't have press conferences either. To heck with the media, they make up news anyway.

    March 20, 2009 10:53 am at 10:53 am |
  12. Keep Deleting My Comments

    Pegasus – Your remark stating "He was, in essence, stating that he was so bad at bowling that he felt he could be put into their program." is the reason why this is a very big deal. Have you ever attended the special olympics? Have you ever worked with a special needs child? I seriously doubt it. Many of the kids who attend the special olympics perform above and beyond some profesional athletes. Secondly, the challeges they have to overcome are purely remarkable. I am sorry that I have a president who does not have any respect for others. This is a big deal and I expect America to show Obama this.

    March 20, 2009 10:54 am at 10:54 am |
  13. Merkin Muffley

    I've seen videotape of the President attempting to bowl at stops during last year's campaign. I think he would probably be the first person to say that he wouldn't stand a chance bowling against Special Olympians.

    March 20, 2009 10:54 am at 10:54 am |
  14. Marc in Virginia

    I've volunteered to help out organizing Special Olympics events. I don't thik we need to crucify Obama for the remark, but I think what he said was ridiculous. If I were to make such a comment at my job, I'd be reprimanded. Feel free to defend and excus him all you wish, but there's no question that he came across as extremely condescending.

    March 20, 2009 10:55 am at 10:55 am |
  15. frank

    Ok, Obama made a mistake. At least his mistake didn't cost the lives of 600,000 Iraqs and over 4,000 Americans in an unjustified war.

    So for the moral majority, of wHich you are neither, give it a break!

    March 20, 2009 10:57 am at 10:57 am |
  16. Kristina

    I agree with what Dave said, "It's obvious he thinks his skills in bowling are handicapped". If people actually took the time to really get to know Obama they would know that this is exactly what he meant and not to offend anyone!!!

    I read his book "The Audacity of Hope" and it is SO inspiring!!! He has another book that is on the "The #1 New York Times Bestseller " list called "Dreams from My Father" that I am starting to read and already enjoying it. He is a real person just like Hall for Obama wrote "At least we know he is not Jesus and don't have to walk on water. You without sin please get in line with Jesus". AMEN to that!!! 🙂

    March 20, 2009 10:57 am at 10:57 am |
  17. Parker

    To those who say this is a "non issue" and not a big deal, that is was just a joke... in some ways I agree.

    But would you say the same thing if this came from Bush? or Cheney? or Limbaugh? or someone else you disagreed with? The answer is no, you wouldn't. You want those people to be sensitive to others (and not make jokes or political cartoons that could be seen as offensive) but when someone like President Obama does it, that is alright and we should just let it go. I think our nation is too sensitive as it is, but you should be fair across the board: If Bush couldn't say this without attack, why is it not a big deal for President Obama to do so?

    March 20, 2009 10:57 am at 10:57 am |
  18. Sue

    As a mom of a person with disabilities it is unfortunate that President Obama made this comment. However, I am sure that there is not one of us who has written in this forum that has not made a similar comment that we have regretted or have even done something much worse to disparage someone that is disabled, of a different race, nationality, etc. We have to quit being so insensitive or we will be angry people forever. I have been around several disabled persons lately that actually laugh at themselves as we as the non-disabled are able to joke and laugh at ourselves. How refreshing when we can all be together and not have to walk on "eggshells" with one another...that is when we are truly accepting of the disabled and can all feel like we live in an environment where we are accepting and there is a degree of normalcy.

    March 20, 2009 10:57 am at 10:57 am |
  19. JL

    Yep, like he said...everyones a Simon Cowel from American Idol

    there always something to snipe at.

    March 20, 2009 10:57 am at 10:57 am |
  20. Sharon

    I have a Down Syndrome nephew and I wasn't upset or offended by President Obama's comment..everyone has a slip of the tongue..he is only human and trying very hard to reach out to everyone... and I know this president wouldn't intentionally hurt anyone!! It's a shame the media just can't wait to jump on something..I guess they haven't got enough really IMPORTANT news to report about...better watch out for your jobs!!!

    March 20, 2009 10:59 am at 10:59 am |
  21. Jerry

    Compared to the gaffes that Bush used to make practically every day, this one was microscopic. Obama is human, he's just a lot better at it than most people, so when he does slip up everyone blows it WAY out of proportion. Greatest President ever in the making here folks.

    March 20, 2009 11:00 am at 11:00 am |
  22. Kevin

    This country has become so soft. I can't believe this is even headline news. European leaders parade their mistresses around in public and over here our president is crucified for making a joke about handicaps ON A COMEDY SHOW. If you took offense to this, please seek a mental health professional because there are far worse tragedies in life than being the butt of an innocent joke.

    March 20, 2009 11:01 am at 11:01 am |
  23. August

    I have to give Obama credit for being the only President we've had in decades that has the ability to admit when he is wrong and to apologize with sincerety.

    March 20, 2009 11:01 am at 11:01 am |
  24. Ted

    Will the Republicans just shut up? The President is never out of touch with what is going on, whether in the White House or on Air Force One. All you can say is that he shouldn't be on Leno and that he should be in the White House working on problems that George Bush created. The next thing you Republicans will say that when Obama is on the toilet, he needs to be concentrating on the economy, not anything else.

    March 20, 2009 11:04 am at 11:04 am |
  25. Richard

    Let's lighten up and not have to be policially correct all of the time. He made any error, no big deal.

    March 20, 2009 11:04 am at 11:04 am |
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