'It was like the Special Olympics': Obama has his own Bush moment

President apologises for disability gaffe on Jay Leno chat show

Barack Obama yesterday discovered, to his cost, that the office of the President sits uncomfortably with the knockabout demands of the chat-show circuit after he was forced to apologise for making an ill-advised joke about the Special Olympics during a late-night interview with Jay Leno.

The US President, who has hitherto boasted a cosy relationship with the forces of political correctness, managed to turn an otherwise successful appearance on The Tonight Show into a PR disaster with a single, unfortunate quip equating his much-derided 10-pin bowling technique to that of a disabled athlete.

Asked, whether he'd found time, between basketball games, to check out the White House's famous bowling alley, he fluttered his eye lashes with faux modesty, shifted uneasily on the leather sofa, and declared: "I've been practising ... I bowled a 129."

To whoops from the audience, who apparently believe that 129 represents a less-than-stellar score for any self-respecting bowler, let alone the leader of the free world, President Obama dissolved into a fit of giggles, declaring: "It was like the Special Olympics or something!"

The joke passed without undue attention in the Burbank studio where Mr Leno's show was recorded on Thursday afternoon. But by the time Obama had returned to Air Force One, anxious aides had cottoned on to the offence it would cause. During the journey, before the show had aired, President Obama personally called Tim Shriver, the chairman of the Special Olympics, to apologise for the blunder. Shortly afterwards, the White House issued a formal retraction.

"He expressed his disappointment and he apologised in a way that was very moving... [and] expressed that he did not intend to humiliate this population," Mr Shriver later told ABC television, adding that Obama had offered to have some of the athletes over to the White House to bowl or play basketball.

The incident marked a rare gaffe for Mr Obama, who has hitherto avoided any of careless remarks that jollified the reign of predecessor President Bush. Until Thursday night, the only previous occasion that his sense of humour sparked trouble came shortly after election day when he was forced to apologise for making a wisecrack about Nancy Reagan's "seances".

It was, however, exactly the sort of PR disaster that critics predicted when Obama announced his decision to appear on Mr Leno's show. With the exception of John F Kennedy, every previous President has declined invitations to appear on America's late-night chat-show circuit, where off-colour jokes are part of the scenery.

"The first appearance by a sitting president on The Tonight Show may well end up being the last," was the verdict of the TV pundit Jake Tapper. Describing the gaffe as that moment when "your inner censor decides to step out for a cigarette break", Time magazine's James Poniewozik said: "Without that rhetorical gutterball, the interview probably would have been judged a success, assuming that you didn't consider a late-night appearance by definition un-presidential."

Indeed, Obama used most of his Tonight appearance to sell his bailout to viewers, expressing support for his embattled Treasury Secretary, Timothy Geithner. He also sought to assure the watching public – the biggest audience for Leno's show in more than four years – that he was as "stunned" as they were by the AIG bonus scandal.

Wearing a suit and tie, the President was greeted by the studio band playing "Hail to the Chief". He confirmed that his daughters would be taking delivery of the White House puppy by the time he returns from his first visit to Europe in early April. And he spoke of the difficulties of office.

"I do think in Washington it's a little bit like American Idol, except everybody is Simon Cowell".

That was before Gaffe-gate.

How he would fare in the real thing

Barack Obama is right that bowling is a Special Olympics event – one of 25 featuring in the organisation's World Summer Games, held every four years.

A separate entity entirely to the mainstream Olympics and Paralympics events, the Special Olympics charity was founded by Eunice Kennedy Shriver in 1968, with the motto: "Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt." Unlike the Paralympics, in which competitors are physically impaired, the Special Olympics focus on athletes with intellectual disabilities – commonly the result of pre-birth problems such as Down syndrome, or brain injuries sustained later in life. At the last games in 2007 in Shanghai, there were 7,500 athletes competing from 165 countries.

When it comes to the bowling, some competitors bowl independently; some direct the ball using a ramp; the most severely impaired direct an assistant, who aims the ramp on their behalf. In all three categories at the 2007 games, there were competitors who outclassed Mr Obama's score of 129.

Consistent scores at that level would earn him a bronze medal in one of the men's singles categories – and leave him marooned in sixth place in the other two. The top scoring gold medallist, Gianvito Campo, a 19-year-old from San Marino, easily outclassed Mr Obama with an average score of 165.

Guy Adams

The gutterball: President's slip

LENO: Now, are they going to put a basketball – I imagine the bowling alley has been just burnt and closed down?

OBAMA: No, no. I have been practising all ... (Laughter.)

LENO: Really? Really?

OBAMA: I bowled a 129. (Laughter and applause.)

LENO: No, that's very good. Yes. That's very good, Mr President.

OBAMA: It's like – it was like Special Olympics, or something. (Laughter.)

LENO: No, that's very good.

OBAMA: No, listen, I'm making progress on the bowling, yes.

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