'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.

Arts and Entertainment
TVSabotage, a major meltdown and, of course, plenty of sauce
News
newsVideo for No campaign was meant to get women voting
News
A photo of Charles Belk being detained by police on Friday 22 August
news
News
i100'Geography can be tough'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Sport
Louis van Gaal looks dejected after Manchester United's 4-0 defeat by MK Dons on Tuesday night
sport
News
Actor, model and now record breaker: Jiff the Pomeranian
Video
News
REX/Eye Candy
science
News
i100
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates after scoring his first goal for Arsenal in the Champions League qualifier against Besiktas
sportChilean's first goal for the club secures place in draw for Champions League group stages
Arts and Entertainment
Amis: 'The racial situation in the US is as bad as it’s been since the Civil War'
booksAuthor says he might come back across Atlantic after all
Extras
indybest
Life and Style
Google Doodle celebrates the 200th birthday of Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
News
i100
News
In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Jim Carrey and Kate Winslett medically erase each other from their memories
scienceTechnique successfully used to ‘reverse’ bad memories in rodents could be used on trauma victims
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Pixie Lott will take part in Strictly Come Dancing 2014, the BBC has confirmed
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SEN Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Cheshire: SEN Teacher required with Early Years...

C# Developer (C#, ASP.NET Developer, SQL, MVC, WPF, Real-Time F

£40000 - £48000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C# Devel...

C# Swift Payment Developer (C#, ASP.NET, .NET, MVC, Authorize.N

£45000 - £60000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C# Swift...

Front-End Developer (JavaScript, HTML5, CSS3, C#, GUI)

£55000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Front-End Deve...

Day In a Page

Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

What is the appeal of Twitch?

Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

How bosses are making us work harder

As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

A tale of two writers

Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

Should pupils get a lie in?

Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

Prepare for Jewish jokes...

... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

A dream come true for SJ Watson

Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
10 best cycling bags for commuters

10 best cycling bags for commuters

Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

Paul Scholes column

Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?