On Leno, Obama makes Special Olympics joke

In his "Tonight Show" appearance, the president tried to make fun of his poor bowling -- and ended up joking about the disabled.

Published March 20, 2009 2:15PM (EDT)

President Obama's appearance on "The Tonight Show" could have gone better. For the most part, he did fine, but the interview is likely to be remembered for one off-color joke the president made.

It started when Leno referenced Obama's famously poor bowling skills, joking, "I imagine the [White House] bowling alley has been just burned and closed down." Obama responded by saying he'd been practicing and had bowled a 129, prompting the host to remark, sarcastically, "No, that's very good. Yes. That's very good, Mr. President."

"It was like Special Olympics, or something," Obama quipped in response.

Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton offered something of an apology almost immediately, telling reporters aboard Air Force One, "The President made an offhand remark making fun of his own bowling that was in no way intended to disparage the Special Olympics. He thinks that the Special Olympics are a wonderful program that gives an opportunity to shine to people with disabilities from around the world." And Obama called Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver -- Sen. Ted Kennedy's nephew -- to offer a personal apology that Shriver described as "very moving."

It was a lame joke, a failed attempt at humor, but probably not the kind of thing that deserves to be part of the usual cycle of outrage that occurs when these sorts of things happen. Fortunately, for the most part, people -- even on the right side of the blogosphere --  have been keeping it in at least some kind of perspective.

Still, the reaction has been filled with the kind of argument that's one of my biggest pet peeves in political discussion: The "Imagine the reaction if he was a Republican/Democrat" argument. (See, in this case, The Anchoress and Kathryn Jean Lopez, for instance.)

It's just a silly point to make, one based entirely in the fact that the person making it has no actual evidence for their claim. And inevitably it asssumes the worst -- if President Bush had made that joke, there'd be rioting in the streets! The media would be demanding impeachment!

Well, no, sorry. Typically there really is no double standard on these sorts of things. It's not perfectly analogous, but remember that in 2006 Bush inadvertently teased a legally blind reporter for wearing sunglasses intended to help preserve his remaining vision. The world didn't end. And just last year, Vice President Dick Cheney made a joke about inbreeding in West Virginia. (Again, not strictly analogous, but keep in mind why inbreeding is taboo in the first place.) It was such a non-story that I, frankly, didn't even remember it happening until I stumbled upon it while looking for a link about the joke Bush made -- and I didn't write about it at the time it occurred, either.

Speaking of pet peeves, writing about the joke over at Newsbusters, the blog of the Media Research Center, a conservative press watchdog, Noel Sheppard made a similar kind of argument, one that also drives me crazy when I see it.

"Will media pay much attention to this potentially offensive slight to the handicapped?" Sheppard asked, which would be a fair question, I suppose, were it not for the way he began the next line of his post: "According to ABC's Jake Tapper..."

I think that answers the question, no?

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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