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. Ricky Steemboot

    Obama's the president. I would hope people would hold him to a higher standard than the average Joe or a radio entertainer. He shouldn't be making jokes about retards. Not to mention he's from the PC tree-hugging Democratic party. That's like the Senator from the pro-moral, anti-gay Republican Party who solicited gay sex in the airport bathroom.

    March 20, 2009 11:38 am at 11:38 am |
  2. Republican comedy

    I actually missed the joke. I didn't even hear it. I think if Bill Burton hadn't said anything about it. This wouldn't be a big deal.

    March 20, 2009 11:38 am at 11:38 am |
  3. barking dogs

    I feel sorry for the right wing zealots.They are like the dogs in my neighbors yards,tied up by closed minds and fences.They just bark for the sake of barking, out of bordom and lack of freedom.

    March 20, 2009 11:38 am at 11:38 am |
  4. Tansukh Thanki

    Though Prsident is "down to earth" person,needs to think internally while making sensitive comments effacting people.We have seen people ultimately falling on their face when an EGO takes over the common sense>
    I hope Mr. President will not lose his COOL at the same time his HEART for the people whom he dealy loves.

    March 20, 2009 11:39 am at 11:39 am |
  5. Nick

    To those, who are finding it so offensive, here are some pointers:

    1) At least he knows to talk/joke without the help of teleprompter.
    2) He had the good sense to apologize for it.
    3) He doesn't hide from the citizens and only speak in tightly controlled circumstances to hand picked audiences like Bush did.
    4) What were your comments to Bush's "Mission accomplished" , "Bring it on" or "I am the decider"?

    March 20, 2009 11:39 am at 11:39 am |
  6. Lisa

    I don't understand why no one is asking Jay Leno to apologize for suggesting that Blacks or African Americans don't bowl with his comment that "the bowling alley is burned down and replaced with a basketball court." Amazing....If nothing else....President Obama should finally recognize he is no longer a "regular American." Stop with the late night shows and take care of the economy....And Yes I am a President Obama supporter.

    March 20, 2009 11:39 am at 11:39 am |
  7. Disappointed

    Looks like the messiah's teleprompter could not make it in time ..
    I am sure eventually people will wake up to the fact that while it is a Great Historicaly fact that we have the 1st black President in America ..
    we as Americans made a HUGE mistake in making this individual the President
    Say what you will, his presidency will do more harm to the stature of Black people in this nation than good

    Yes, I am Black and NO I did NOT vote for Obama!!!
    HRC all the way !!!

    March 20, 2009 11:39 am at 11:39 am |
  8. dallas gal

    "Bill March 20th, 2009 11:37 am ET

    I voted for McCain and all I got was this wrotten President."

    and apparently a ROTTEN education.
    at least with Mr President Obama we will have education reform.

    March 20, 2009 11:39 am at 11:39 am |
  9. HD

    I'm sure the President didn't mean any harm by his remark. He said something stupid....we all do. But, you have to admit, if Bush made the same gaffe, the media and the public would be hammering him 1,000 times harder right now. It just proves the double standard.

    March 20, 2009 11:40 am at 11:40 am |
  10. Jon

    Come on America! It was obvious from the context of the situation that our President was making a joke in a light moment. His comment wasn't a text without tone that could be taken the wrong way. What was said was not meant to be demeaning. Let's grow up!

    March 20, 2009 11:40 am at 11:40 am |
  11. Adam

    I'm critical of our President's spending habits and the way he's handling our economy, but people need to grow thicker skin. The comment? Big deal. It wasn't malicious.

    I'm more worried about the millions that are being spent flying him all over the country.

    March 20, 2009 11:40 am at 11:40 am |
  12. sally

    some of you are shocked. he has been a prolific gaffe machine since day one. stop it.

    March 20, 2009 11:40 am at 11:40 am |
  13. Carolyn Adams, NC

    OK Look I am disabled, I took no offense to what the President said, such a big deal made over a simple statement.

    I think it is great to know that a President, is still a person, and down to earth.

    Give it a break. Mr. President I will bowl you anytime.

    March 20, 2009 11:41 am at 11:41 am |
  14. Lewes

    I DO MIND that our President made such a remark. If this is the way he speaks on national TV, what does he say with no cameras on. He is also quoted as saying he "is a fan of the movement". Movement! Special Olympics is not a movement, it's a program and a very successful one without any help from him! And as far as Obama inviting Special Olympians to the White House, BIG DEAL! I wouldn't let my two children (Special Olympians) walk across the street to see this guy. He needs serious PR help when speaking about special needs individuals. His handlers need to be handled.

    March 20, 2009 11:41 am at 11:41 am |
  15. spam

    Nick – "By the way my credit score is looking like a 129 Mr. President!"

    Well maybe you shouldn't have opend up those 12 credit cards you couldn't pay off, or taken out that mortgagge that was waaaay above your income means, or bought that 3rd car for your wife and 2 1/2 kids.......anyone who blames someone else for their credit score is an ignorant, irresponsible cry-baby and should have their pacifier taken away!

    March 20, 2009 11:41 am at 11:41 am |
  16. charlie in maine

    Obama offends special olympians and their parents and apologizes the next day. George W Bush gets 4500 solders killed and 100k+ Iraqi civilians killed all to occupy a country that did not attck us – we are still waiting for an apolgy on that one.

    This IS the kind of change I voted for.

    March 20, 2009 11:41 am at 11:41 am |
  17. Critical Thinker

    President Obama made an attempt at humor that could be misinterpreted. He had and has no "ill will" or "disrespect" toward the Special Olympics or disabled people. Accept his apologiy and move on. You'll probably see that he does more for disabled people during his presidency than anyone has since ADA was enacted. R.I.P. (Oops, I apologize if I offended any dead people!)

    March 20, 2009 11:41 am at 11:41 am |
  18. Hal Mekeel

    I have been a Special Olympics coach for 20 years. I routinely hear people make comments like this. It's generally not meanness. It's simple ignorance about the Special Olympics population. I don't get upset with people, unless they fail to learn from a mistake like this. I believe Barack Obama to be a very decent person. He realized his mistake, and apologized. That's refreshing after 8 years of no personal responsibility in the White House.

    March 20, 2009 11:42 am at 11:42 am |
  19. Michael

    it's funny reading the comments from Democrats (the Champions of Political Correctness) trying to defend Obama's remarks.

    March 20, 2009 11:42 am at 11:42 am |
  20. lester

    I wonder how much grief poor poor bush would suffer such a gaffe. it would not good enough to hear or read that bush is sorry for a mouth to brain disconnection again and again and again.

    March 20, 2009 11:42 am at 11:42 am |
  21. Dave

    Hey Candace,re 9/11 and Iraq like most are not too well educated are you? nobody has forgotten 9/11 and i personally have no problem with bushs decision to attack the taliban, though i wish he had actually managed to "git" bin laden and he did sit by ignoring outgoing clinton admin. warnings. FBI info, and reading "my pet goat " ..but in case you havent yet heard or figured it out the 9/11 bombers were saudis operating out of Afghanistgan..the war in iraq had close to zero to do with 9/11

    Unjust war??? Have you forgotten 911???? Ask our brave men and women in the military if is unjust!!!! You didn't loose anyone in 911 did you??? You can bash Bush all you want but at least he didn't sit by while The Trade Centers tumbled costing close to $4,000 American lives. How soon we forget!!!

    March 20, 2009 11:43 am at 11:43 am |
  22. American

    I know how hurt are obama supporters, that the president made a insensitive remark and they dont want anybody talking about it.

    By the way aren't they keeping a diligent count of how many mistakes bush made?

    Oh sorry , obama is above all presidents, my bad....

    Does comedy show hosts have guts to make fun of obama on this gaffe as they did for bush?

    God Bless America!!

    March 20, 2009 11:43 am at 11:43 am |
  23. NJ here

    This is a non-issue (except, of course, for the PC do-gooders and right-wing hatemongers). Obama was poking fun at HIMSELF, morons! Offense can only be taken when it is intended, and clearly that was not the Presiden't intent when he made his comments.

    March 20, 2009 11:43 am at 11:43 am |
  24. DEE WI

    I cannot BELIEVE this is causing such a stir. Just sit back a moment folks and think rationally, ok?
    The president has been in power just 60 days at the time of this writing. Our previous administration had 8 LONG years to put us into the mess we are in out of greed plain and simple. The big guys got their money and ran. A let them eat cake mentality.

    I have never seen a past administration continue to try to garner headlines, (our sharpshooter past vice pres) when they were so clearly out voted. CHANGE is what the American people voted for, and change is going to take time. We did not get into this mess in 60 days and it is going to take lots of unraveling of the yarn to set it right again.

    When I see Cheyney spouting off, it is like he is sending a message to his crooked friends, "keep your mouth shut or we are all gonna go to jail." Just the feeling I get.

    I firmly believe there are many more shady arrangements that were made in the past 8 years then we will ever know about, billions taken under the table and lots of back room deals made.

    Leno was SO correct. Shouldn't more people be going to jail?

    Do people forget the building contracts in Iraq had the fingerprints of Haliburton=Cheyney all over them? Did it not profit Cheyney to agree to keep the war going to line his own pockets? Wake up!

    If the Republicans tried to work with the administration instead of looking our for their own re-elections, and their own 5 minutes of fame on news sound bites, our country would be much better off.

    Obama was elected by a huge majority. People are sickened by what our country has become, both here and around the world. Let Obama do his job.

    I personally would like this administration to take a good hard look at the costs Nursing Homes are charging Medicare under the blanket of "MISC" charges. I have personal experience on this and Medicare is getting ripped off everyday across the country, and no one is taking a look at it. Make the Nursing homes break down the costs. I tried and got nowhere. Maybe the government can do it, or cut off their aid.

    And finally remember folks, it is going to take a heck of a lot more than 60 days to uncover all of the crookedness we have been subjected to in the past 8 years!

    March 20, 2009 11:43 am at 11:43 am |
  25. Trish

    The comment was very unfortunate and I understand it was meant to poke fun at himself but the bottom line here is: THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES CANNOT MAKE THOSE TYPES OF MISTAKES. Our president will speak to world leaders and must be careful with choosing his words as those words may cause a backlash that we cannot afford. President Obama must be held accountable as Bush, Cheney and the Republicans were always ripped to shreds if they spoke inappropriately. It's nice to know that this President will accept responsibility for his mistake and apologize for that.....but that was a terrible comment as I have a special needs brother and the comment although meant to be funny was insensitive.

    March 20, 2009 11:43 am at 11:43 am |
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