Appearing Thursday on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” — the first time a sitting president has graced a late-night couch — Obama chatted informally about his mediocre bowling skills.
“I bowled a 129,” he told Leno. “It was like the Special Olympics or something.”
The audience chuckled. Leno put his fingers to his mouth. And White House staffers — quickly recognizing the blunder — began crafting the apology.
The Special Olympics, founded in 1968, is a global nonprofit organization involved in education and athletic competition for 200 million people with intellectual disabilities.
On his way back to Washington on Air Force One, Obama called the chairman of the Special Olympics, Tim Shriver, to say he was sorry — even before the taped program aired late Thursday night.
“He expressed his disappointment and he apologized in a way that was very moving. He expressed that he did not intend to humiliate this population,” Shriver said Friday on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
“Words do hurt,” said Donna Zimmerman of Special Olympics Kansas. “Just making an offhanded comment, or being flippant and funny … targets people who don’t have that ability to speak for themselves.”
While this particular storm may pass — look for Obama to appear at a Special Olympics event sometime soon, perhaps at the White House, perhaps to bowl or play basketball — the YouTube moment reminded politicians and communications experts that laughs can turn into gaffes pretty quickly.
“His Special Olympics line is a perfect example of why presidents need joke writers,” said Daniel Kurtzman, author, journalist, and editor of a political humor Web site (http://politicalhumor.about.com.) “If you’re a politician whose every word is scrutinized, cracking off-the-cuff jokes is always a risky proposition.”
Obama knows that risk.
Last November, he joked with reporters about Nancy Reagan séances in the White House, prompting a quick “I’m sorry” to the former first lady. And his vice president, Joe Biden, maintains a high gaffe-ability index — his post-inaugural chuckler about U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts’ memory drew a scowl from Obama.
Thursday’s fumble, though, didn’t come in a speech or news conference but during a relaxed TV interview that the White House hoped would more closely link the president with the public.
Such informal, folksy TV chats can be risky, experts say, because friendly hosts — such as Leno — can lead to a false sense of security.
“You can’t let your guard down,” said Barry Morris, a former Kansas City anchorman and now a media coach. “You’ve got to be totally prepared, even on a program like that; rehearse what you’re going to say, and then perform it.”
Some critics said Obama wasn’t ready Thursday.
“I blame Obama’s prompter, or lack thereof,” wrote conservative blogger Michelle Malkin.
More than most presidents, Obama has relied on a script-reading device called a teleprompter when delivering remarks, suggesting to some that he’s worried about his ad-libbing skills.
Not everyone thinks Obama suffered from the slip on a rhetorical banana peel on the show. The Kansas City Star’s television critic, Aaron Barnhart, called it a “non-issue” on his blog, TV Barn.
“This is precisely the reason you put Obama on late-night television, because even when he screws up, he does the human thing and apologizes,” he wrote.
More people, though, seemed to agree with the wincing reaction of Maria Shriver, whose mother, Eunice, started Special Olympics over 40 years ago.
“Oftentimes we don’t realize that when we laugh at comments like this it hurts millions of people throughout the world,” Maria Shriver — Tim’s sister — said in a statement. “People with special needs are great athletes and productive citizens, and I look forward to working with the president to knock down myths and stereotypes about this community.”
Obama may soon get a chance to knock down a few pins along with those myths and stereotypes.
Special Olympics competitor Kolan McConiughey averages 266 a game (for the nonbowler, 300 is perfect), and he has challenged the president to a game or two, according to www.tmz.com.
“He’s cool, but he can’t beat me,” McConiughey said.