Perhaps President Obama may have had an inkling Thursday evening why he was the first sitting president to appear on a late night comedy show. Seeking to lighten the mood during a week plagued by economic turmoil and congressional in-fighting, the president appeared on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" despite calls from some that he should instead focus on the economy.
Toward the end of Obama's interview with Leno, he joked about how he has improved his bowling score by practicing his form in the White House bowling alley.
"I bowled a 129 ... It's like the Special Olympics or something," Obama said to Leno with a laugh. The president quickly came to regret this foot-in-mouth moment, and apologized to the chairman of the Special Olympics before the interview even made it to air Thursday evening.
Maybe presidents should leave the joking to the comedians. But, while Obama is the first sitting president to take a stab at late-night comedy, he's certainly not the first to have his humor fall flat.
Bush WMD Joke Criticized
At a 2004 dinner for journalists, then-President George W. Bush was criticized for joking about the hunt for weapons of mass destruction during wartime. In an effort to show off his sense of humor at the annual dinner of the Radio and Television News Correspondents Association, Bush presented a slideshow to the media. The photographs revealed Bush in various poses in the Oval Office, pretending to search for WMD.
"Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be here somewhere," Bush said while showing a picture of him looking under a desk at the White House. "No, no weapons over there," he said as he continued revealing images to a laughing crowd of reporters.
"Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere ... nope, no weapons over there ... maybe under here?" Bush joked.
Many Democrats were outraged by the attempt at humor, suggesting the remarks crossed a line.
"This is a very serious issue," Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe told "Good Morning America" the same week. "We've lost hundreds of troops, as you know, over there. Let's not be laughing about not being able to find weapons of mass destruction."
Kerry's Botched Joke
Presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., also fell victim to a bad joke. While on the stump for local Democrats, the former presidential candidate caused students of Pasadena City College in California to roar with laughter when he drew a parallel between education and the Iraq war.
"Education -- if you make the most of it and you study hard and you do your homework, and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well," Kerry said. "If you don't, you get stuck in Iraq."
Kerry later clarified that he was referring to the president not doing his homework, not to military men and women who have served in Iraq. The senator issued a statement saying he regretted that his "words were misinterpreted to wrongly imply anything negative about those in uniform, and I personally apologize to any service member, family member, or American who was offended."
But it was too late, the firestorm of criticism from the right had already spread to the Internet and then to the campaign trail.
Republicans saw the gaffe as an excuse to discuss something other than the Bush administration's handling of the war in Iraq and a much-needed opening for their party in advance of the 2006 mid-term elections.
On the campaign trail in Georgia, then-President Bush called the remarks "shameful."
"The members of the United States military are plenty smart. And they are plenty brave," Bush said. "The senator from Massachusetts owes them an apology."
"It's obvious precisely what you were saying Sen. Kerry," conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh said. "You were insulting uniformed men and women of the U.S. military, as you have been doing for most of your adult life."
Kerry defended himself, saying, "It was a botched joke about the president and the president's people." He said, "I'm sick and tired of a whole bunch of Republican attacks. Most of which came from people who never wore the uniform and never had the courage to stand up and go to war themselves."
McCain Sings 'Bomb Iran'
During the 2008 campaign for the White House, presidential contender Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was criticized for responding to a question about a preemptive strike against Iran by singing the tune of the Beach Boys' "Barbara Ann" with new lyrics.
"Remember that old Beach Boys song, Bomb Iran?" he asked the South Carolina crowd. "Bomb-bomb-bomb ... anyway."
What was meant as a trivial joke caused backlash on the presidential playing field and the McCain campaign was forced to defend itself.
Where's Your Sense of Humor?
"I said it before and I'll continue to say it, you got to have a sense of humor," the senator said at a press briefing after the remarks.
"I think it's our team in South Carolina's way of showing they have a good sense of humor," McCain's communications director Brian Jones said. "And let's face it, it's a catchy tune."
Later that same month, the campaign went on to play the classic Beach Boys ditty at a couple of campaign stops in the Southeast.
Reagan Jokes About Bombing Soviet Union
While President Ronald Reagan was known as the "Great Communicator," the former president was not always so skilled at delivering his message.
On Aug. 11, 1984, Reagan was about to make his weekly address on National Public Radio when he joked to the radio technicians about bombing Russia.
"My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever," he said while testing the microphone. "We begin bombing in five minutes."
Although the statement was intended as a joke and was not made on the air, it had been recorded during the sound check and later leaked to the press. The international community was not amused by the attempt at humor. Two years earlier, Reagan had made the same mistake during a sound check when he said, "Yesterday, the Polish government, a bunch of no good lousy bums, took another far-reaching step in their persecution of their own people."
While many politicians have tried their hand at comedy, certainly gaffes such as these don't come only in the form of jokes. Countless presidents have been embarrassed not only by botched humor, but also by verbal mishaps, illness and clumsiness. Below are a few of the highlights.
Bush's Failed Exit Strategy
President Bush visited China in November 2005, a trip he took primarily to develop relations with Chinese President Hu Jintao and discuss global economic issues. But the most memorable moment from the trip was Bush's embarrassing interaction with reporters when trying to dodge their questions.
One reporter noticed Bush seemed to lack his normal enthusiasm during the joint statement with Hu and asked the president if something was bothering him. After Bush blamed jet lag for his disposition, he headed toward the door as the reporter tried to ask a follow-up question. The president's attempt to exit was thwarted when he tugged on both handles of the double doors and they didn't budge.
"I was trying to escape," Bush said. "Obviously, it didn't work."
Bush Sick at State Dinner
During his visit to Japan in 1992, President George H. W. Bush caused quite a stir when he fell ill while at a state dinner. Bush had been plagued by nausea the entire evening and was seated next to Prime Minister of Japan Kiichi Miyazawa when he vomited and fell unconscious.
First lady Barbara Bush rushed to his side after she realized something was wrong, but quickly moved out of the way to allow the Secret Service to take action. It turned out that Bush had fallen victim to an intestinal flu.
The following day, Bush appeared with Miyazawa for a photo session and remarked that he was embarrassed by the alarm that had been caused by his collapse. In the days to come, the tape of Bush seated at the banquet table becoming sick was aired repeatedly and mocked incessantly by comedians.
Carter's 'Killer Rabbit'
While home in Plains, Ga., President Jimmy Carter set out on a solo fishing expedition when he came under attack by a swamp rabbit. The rabbit, which had been swimming near his boat, attempted to board the vessel despite Carter's efforts to shoo it away with his paddle.
After returning to Washington and telling his disbelieving staff about the incident, Carter ordered a print of the images taken by the White House photographer who had been seated ashore. The media got wind of the story after press secretary Jody Powell mentioned it to an Associated Press writer and the legend became to some a metaphor for Carter's presidency.
Ford's Falling Faux Pas
Although President Gerald Ford was one of the most athletically gifted presidents, his headlong fall down the stairs outside Air Force One became one of his defining moments. Ford had been the star of the University of Michigan football team as the center and linebacker, and even rejected offers from the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers in order to attend law school. His slip from the rain-covered stairs of Air Force One produced endless sketches on "Saturday Night Live" of comedian Chevy Chase impersonating the president's klutzy moves.