Obama's Gutter Ball Threatens to Haunt Him
By Scott Wilson
The subject has vexed him before, though the offense then was more political sin than personal affront to millions of Americans.
A president who this week spoke fluently about the changing nature of America's middle class, plug-in hybrid cars, mortgage-backed securities and public-school reform stumbled -- and stumbled badly -- when it came to a topic he just can't seem to get right. Bowling.
Saying his improving yet still admittedly lousy bowling game is "like Special Olympics or something," President Obama offended many disabled Americans, their champions, and others who puzzled over how a man who rarely misspeaks could make such a joke. Some of those most upset are among his staunchest supporters.
The president made the remarks Thursday on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" at the end of a day spent in Southern California campaigning for his budget proposal.
During a town hall forum in Los Angeles earlier in the day, a disabled man told Obama "about the true renaissance that's happening" among people with physical disabilities, asking the president how "your disability agenda will release this emerging potential that's currently wasted and untapped?"
"Well, you are exactly right that we need everybody," Obama responded. "And every program that we have has to be thinking on the front end, how do we make sure that it is inclusive and building into it our ability to draw on the capacities of persons with disabilities."
Then on to Leno, where he said that after practicing in the White House lanes, he recently bowled a 129, saying "it's like -- it was like Special Olympics or something." The crowd laughed.
Soon after the show, Obama phoned Tim Shriver, chairman of the Special Olympics, to apologize. The organization serves some 200 million disabled people around the world and stages regular international sporting events.
Shriver, the nephew of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), whose early endorsement helped propel Obama to the Democratic nomination, told ABC's "Good Morning America" Friday that the president expressed regret "in a way that I think was very moving."
Obama, Shriver said, told him "he did not intend to humiliate the population, didn't want to embarrass or give anybody any more reason for pain or any kind of suffering."
The question remains: Will Obama ever be able to safely discuss bowling?
During the campaign, Obama bowled a 37 in Altoona, Pa. (granted, over seven of 10 frames, but still ...). Many of the blue-collar Democrats he was trying to win over at the time scratched their heads, wondering how one would go about scoring that low (300 is a perfect score), if he had ever actually set foot in the ultimate everyman hangout before.
Past presidents have been defined by things they have said, done, or had happen to them -- fairly or unfairly. George W. Bush choked on a pretzel and never lived it down. Bill Clinton had junk food (as well as more glaring flaws). Gerald Ford's alleged clutziness made Chevy Chase's career as the First Stumbler on Saturday Night Live. Dwight Eisenhower golfed ... and golfed ... and golfed.
Jimmy Carter bemused environmentalists after claiming that he fended off a charging rabbit while canoeing on a family vacation. Soon after, the Defenders of Wildlife jokingly unveiled a "seven-point program to improve the government's sensitivity to wildlife and set the pace for enlightened, non-lethal policies on predators, including rabbits."
Obama's remark, however, was not funny, and administration officials Friday made that point again.
"I know that the president believes that the Special Olympics are a triumph of the human spirit, and I think he understands that they deserve a lot better than -- than the thoughtless joke that he made last night," Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said during the White House briefing. "And he apologizes for that."
Now the president faces a challenge -- from Kolan McConiughey, a Special Olympics athlete from Ann Arbor, Mich., who bowls an average score of 266. McConiughey has bowled three perfect games and now wants to take on the president, according to the TMZ Web site.
The White House has yet to respond to the request.
Posted at 6:46 PM ET on Mar 20, 2009
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