Obama Apologizes for Calling His Bad Bowling 'Like the Special Olympics'

Tim Shriver tells "GMA" the president apologized "in a way that was very moving"

ByABC News
March 20, 2009, 7:31 AM

March 20, 2009— -- His controversial joke hadn't even aired yet when President Obama got on the phone from Air Force One Thursday night to apologize for comparing his notoriously bad bowling skills to the Special Olympics.

"He expressed his disappointment and he apologized, I think, in a way that was very moving," Tim Shriver, the chairman of the Special Olympics board, told "Good Morning America" today.

"He expressed that he did not intend to humiliate this population, certainly didn't want to embarrass or give anybody any more reason for pain or just suffering, I would say," said Shriver, who received the call from Obama as the president was flying back to Washington.

"He was very sincere, expressed an interest and an openness in being more engaged in the movement, and said he was a fan of the movement and I think, importantly, he said he was ready to have some of our athletes over to the White House to bowl or play basketball or help him improve his score."

It began with the president joking about how bad a bowler he is.

Toward the end of his approximately 40-minute taping on the "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," Obama talked about how he'd gotten better at bowling and had been practicing in the White House bowling alley.

"I bowled a 129," he told Leno.

"That's very good, Mr. President," Leno said sarcastically.

But then came the foot-in-mouth moment: "It's like the Special Olympics or something," the president said.

Shriver told "GMA" that these moments can worsen the stereotypes of people with special needs.

"I think it's important to see that words hurt, and words do matter -- and these words can, in some way, be seen as humiliating or [a] put-down to people with special needs," he said. "[They] do cause pain, and they do result in stereotypes, and they do result in behavior that's neglectful and almost [an] oppressive moment of people with special needs.

"This kind of language needs to be a teachable moment for our country, I think," he added. "I would hope every parent that's at home this morning watching this show could turn to their children and say, 'This is a chance for us to recognize that when we talk about Special Olympics, when we talk about people with special needs. Let's make sure we talk about it in an affirming way,'" he said.

Critics seized on the moment to assail the president, with former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin saying she was "shocked" to learn of the comment.

"This was a degrading remark about our world's most precious and unique people coming from the most powerful position in the world," said Palin, who has a son with Down Syndrome. "I hope President Obama's comments do not reflect how he truly feels about the special needs community."

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger defended the president, saying everyone makes mistakes.

"I didn't see it," said the California Republican. "But I heard about it and I know because of conversations I had with the president about the Special Olympics, and I'm an international coach of the Special Olympics, I know where his heart is at. He loves the Special Olympics and he would do everything he can to help the Special Olympics. And every one of us sometimes makes a mistake by something comes out of your mouth and you say 'Oops I wish I wouldn't have said that.' I've had many of those."

Tim Shriver, who is the brother of Schwarzenegger's wife, Maria Shriver, said there is someone who might be able to help the president with his bowling: A Special Olympian in the Detroit area who has bowled three perfect games.