Obama's Special Olympics joke sparks a national debate

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 20, 2009 

WASHINGTON — California's first couple jumped into the fray Friday after President Barack Obama made a joke about his bowling skills by saying, "It was like Special Olympics or something."

Appearing at the White House after meeting with Obama to discuss roads and bridges, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said he knew Obama meant nothing by it.

"I know where his heart is at," said Schwarzenegger, who considers the Special Olympics his favorite charity, appearing at major competitions and raising money around the world. "He loves Special Olympics, and he will do everything he can to help Special Olympics. And every one of us sometimes makes a mistake. Something comes out of your mouth and you say, 'Oops, I wish I wouldn't have said that.' I've had many of those."

Earlier in the day, California first lady Maria Shriver -- whose mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founded the Special Olympics movement in 1968 -- said that while she was confident Obama did not intend to offend anyone, the remark "demonstrates the need to continue to educate the non-disabled community on the issues that confront those with a developmental disability."

Obama, who made the joke Thursday night on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," apologized. But the remark caused an immediate stir.

Republican Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin said she was "shocked to learn" about Obama's comment.

"This was a degrading remark about our world's most precious and unique people, coming from the most powerful position in the world," Palin said, whose son, Trig, was born with Down syndrome last year. "These athletes overcome more challenges, discrimination and adversity than most of us ever will.

"By the way, these athletes can outperform many of us and we should be proud of them," said Palin, who appeared in a video promoting this year's winter Special Olympics games in Boise, Idaho. "I hope President Obama's comments do not reflect how he truly feels about the special needs community."

The White House sought to explain Obama's comment by calling it "an offhand remark."

"The president made an offhand remark making fun of his own bowling that was in no way intended to disparage the Special Olympics," said White House spokesman Bill Burton. "He thinks that the Special Olympics are a wonderful program that gives an opportunity to shine to people with disabilities from around the world."

Obama issued his apology to Special Olympics Chairman Timothy Shriver, Maria Shriver's brother. Timothy Shriver said Obama "was sincere and heartfelt" in his apology, but added, "Words hurt and words matter."

Shriver, noting that Special Olympics operates more than 30,000 events a year in more than 180 countries, said that Obama's comments provided "a teachable moment for our country."

In a statement, Maria Shriver said that her mother had dedicated her life "to fighting stereotypes and ridicule for this community, and there is still much work to be done."

"The president's apology for his comments and his commitment to bringing the Special Olympics to the White House are important first steps in shedding light on this important issue," she said. "Oftentimes we don't realize that when we laugh at comments like this it hurts millions of people throughout the world. 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."

Schwarzenegger went to the White House with Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to press Obama for more federal aid for infrastructure projects.

"We had a terrific meeting," he said.

Noting that California's unemployment rate had risen to 10.5 percent, Schwarzenegger said a good solution would be to increase government spending on roads and bridges and other projects.

"This creates jobs," he said.

Schwarzenegger and Obama appear to be developing a close relationship.

On Thursday, when the two appeared together in Los Angeles, the governor praised Obama for his "courageous leadership and the great commitment he has displayed."

Obama reciprocated, calling Schwarzenegger "one of the great innovators of state government" who has turned out to "just an outstanding partner" for his administration.

"I'm grateful for him," said Obama.

McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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