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. jim

    this was a very funny line...something i would say (as a JOKE!!). the last time i bowled i would have been beaten by him. but i'm sure the president will be crucified for being politicaly incorrect. get over it!!! he's allowed to be human.

    March 20, 2009 09:23 am at 9:23 am |
  2. Gary

    comments like that are to be expected from people with absolutely no character whatsoever, like Obama. Jay Leno is even worse. He shouldn't even be on television.

    March 20, 2009 09:23 am at 9:23 am |
  3. Aaron

    I guess President needs a teleprompter for even a late night television appearance.

    March 20, 2009 09:23 am at 9:23 am |
  4. Kevin

    Too bad he couldn't bring his Teleprompter to the show. . .

    March 20, 2009 09:23 am at 9:23 am |
  5. niko belic

    WOW...that's sad...after all the PSAs on volunteering, its sad to hear
    him make a joke at the expense of the Special about i make a joke at the expense of clowns...what a big-eared-big mole clown

    March 20, 2009 09:23 am at 9:23 am |
  6. TexasIndependent

    I have a problem with Obama's policies, but even I don't want to beat him up over this. It was a gaffe. People will say that GW Bush made gaffes like that all the time, but the truth is that he did not make gaffes that targetted a group of people like that.

    Let's give him the benefit of the doubt. I don't think he holds any contempt for Special Olympics contestants.

    March 20, 2009 09:23 am at 9:23 am |
  7. cnnnewser

    Stop with the nitpicking!
    It was an excellent show and President Obama was awesome.
    He can't even make a comical statement without you people jumping all over it.
    I've had it with CNN and their nonsense. They're doing their best to discredit our president and I've had enough.

    March 20, 2009 09:23 am at 9:23 am |
  8. Howard

    This President may be eloquent, but also may be the dumbest President we have ever had. This latest ranks right up their with Quayle's spelling of potato(e). Take away the teleprompter and he is as shallow as they come.

    March 20, 2009 09:24 am at 9:24 am |
  9. Judy

    The interview with Leno was great! I encourage everyone to watch the entire interview. This was an unfortunate comment that he apologized for immediately, but it doesn't come close to Michael Steele's "one-armed midget" comment. Where was the "outrage" with that?

    March 20, 2009 09:24 am at 9:24 am |
  10. PJP

    See, even though I don't care for Obama, nobody can go around saying anything any more without having to apologize. He probably did not mean anything offensive about that remark. Just trying to be funny.

    March 20, 2009 09:24 am at 9:24 am |
  11. BillE

    See what happens when the man is without his teleprompter!!!

    March 20, 2009 09:24 am at 9:24 am |
  12. Ryan Anderson

    This is not a "gaffe". This is an outright insult. If Bush had said this, people would have been asking for impeachment. But I'm sure this "rock-star" president will get off scott free for this reprehensible comment.


    March 20, 2009 09:24 am at 9:24 am |
  13. Sled Dog

    Insensitivity at it's best! Just another sign that the man we have in the White House is inexperienced.

    March 20, 2009 09:24 am at 9:24 am |
  14. ari from virginia

    He is a regular person!!!


    The comment was not a gaffe, nor was is derogatory, if we keep taking down good people for the remarks they make as a person you are never going to have any leaders that will step up to the plate to help lead this country.

    Let the man be a regular guy for a change, that may help him help us since he is trying so hard.

    This is like the "Las Vagas" comment, it would be good if reporting was interested in real news instead of hanging on every word this man says.

    He is doing an excellent job!!! considering the criticism and microscopic rectal exam he is getting from everyone.

    March 20, 2009 09:24 am at 9:24 am |
  15. Steve

    Eh, dumb thing to say, but there didn't seem to be any malice behind it. It's no worse than the kind of insensitive remark all of us make just about every day... but, since he's the president, it's going to get scrutinized more, like the gaffes Bush made all the time. Everybody says something stupid once in a while, and I guess it was just Obama's turn. Hey, at least it should shut up all the right-wing conspiracy theorists who claim he's trying to be some kind of totalitarian dictator or something – if he was that, he'd have had the gaffe edited out before it made it to the air.

    I'm sure the Republicans won't have much to say about this, anyway, considering the way they defended Rush Limbaugh when he mocked Michael J. Fox's Parkinson's.

    March 20, 2009 09:24 am at 9:24 am |
  16. Joy

    Obama is such a big joke. Who really cares what score he bowls. Would he ever find himself saying that he bowled like black people. Of course not, but any other group is fair game. He should be telling him Democratic friends that if they want to go back to Congress in 2010, they had better get their sh– together and quit thinking they are fooling the American population.

    March 20, 2009 09:24 am at 9:24 am |
  17. Independent Thinker

    Ouch! That slip up is going to get a lot of mileage. He shouldn't have said it and deserves a slap on the wrist. However, I'm not going to villify him for it. His actions on behalf of the American people far outweigh that comment. The right is going to have a field day with this. I can see Palin in 2012 replaying that comment as she puts her downs syndrome son on display. They love that gutter politics.

    March 20, 2009 09:25 am at 9:25 am |
  18. Jim




    March 20, 2009 09:25 am at 9:25 am |
  19. Kel

    Wait for it....the politically crowd will dimiss this,
    "Oh he was actually trying to praise the Special Olympics" I can't wait to see how the media handles this, if was Cheney or Bush the uproar would be insane.

    March 20, 2009 09:25 am at 9:25 am |
  20. Mike in Kansas

    I can still remember during the 80's the first time I heard someone use the word retarded to describe someone that was not retarted but very ignorant acting. I thought how inappropriate! Now you hear it all the time. Its like a hush hush word making it into mainstream dialogue thereby disempowering its stigma

    I's say "Special Olympics" is on it way. Personally never like the name myself. I always thought something more like Triumphant Olympics was more in order.

    March 20, 2009 09:25 am at 9:25 am |
  21. Matt

    How can CNN report this on the ticker as a "gaffe". Had this been Bush making this comment he would have been crucified by the liberal media. Just another example of the medias bias toward Do No Wrong Obama. The White House press release is also pathetic because there is no way to explain his words. Yes he "make fun of his own bowling" but he did so while comparing it to people with mental and physical disabilities. Therefore, the comparison equates to "if you are in the Special Olympics you are a bad bowler." I'd expect more from The President.

    March 20, 2009 09:25 am at 9:25 am |
  22. Scott

    Ok, so he said something he should not have said. He apologized and made amends. Move on.

    March 20, 2009 09:25 am at 9:25 am |
  23. Robin in SC

    Much ado about nothing...good grief...let the man be human!

    March 20, 2009 09:25 am at 9:25 am |
  24. Sally

    Wow- what a horrible thing to say. His real self comes out when there is no teleprompter.

    March 20, 2009 09:25 am at 9:25 am |
  25. Kevin

    Why don't you just call for his resignation? Or admit there is a reason the special olympics are called "special". Once again CNN and the Washington / media "bubble" ignore the real issues and focus on irrelevant trivia.

    March 20, 2009 09:26 am at 9:26 am |
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