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.
Haunted by AIG
The president called even before the show had aired, knowing that his words could open a controversy on a whole new front.
The White House released a statement shortly after the gaffe Thursday night to clarify the president's comments and said Obama did not mean to offend.
"The president made an off-hand remark making fun of his own bowling that was in no way intended to disparage the Special Olympics. He thinks the Special Olympics is a wonderful program that gives an opportunity for people with disabilities from around the world," said White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton.
The Special Olympics wasn't the only controversy to dog Obama on his West Coast trip.
Despite being 3,000 miles away from the center of the AIG controversy, the president could not escape the heat coming from the furor over fat bonuses paid to executives of the bailed-out insurance giant.
"Stunned. Stunned is the word," said the president on his two-day campaign-style swing through California.
"The immediate bonuses that went to AIG are a problem, but the larger problem is we got to get back to an attitude where people know enough is enough," Obama said. "And people have a sense of responsibility and they understand their actions are going to have an impact on everybody."
He also touted his $3.6 trillion budget and advised Congress to find a permanent fix so that such scandals are avoidable in the future.
"I understand Congress' frustrations, and they're responding to, I think, everybody's anger. But I think that the best way to handle this is to make sure that you've closed the door before the horse gets out of the barn. And what happened here was the money has already gone out and people are scrambling to try to find ways to get back at them," he said.
Before his Special Olympics crack, the president was criticized for being in California for an entertainment show and not minding the store.
"He flies off to Los Angeles to be on the 'Jay Leno' show. My suggestion is he come back, since he's taken the full responsibility" for the AIG controversy, "to get his people together and say, 'All right, I want to know exactly what happened and who did what when and how are we going to prevent this from ever happening the future,'" said Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.
Others said Obama's moves are a distraction from the bigger issues facing the country.
"I think the other thing that's critically important here is that they've been, in a week -- for a week now -- in the midst of a total distraction," former White House press secretary Dana Perino said on "Good Morning America" today. "And every day they're talking about AIG, now they're going to be talking about the Special Olympics today, means it's another day they're not able to advance their message on health care reform or education reform or energy reform. And they've given the Republicans a real opportunity here."
But his supporters said it's too early to cast daggers at the administration, which has barely been in the White House for two months.
"There's many distractions out there, and some of them are caused by themselves. But, you know, by and large, given the job they have ahead of them, and as young as this administration is, I think they're doing quite well," said Democratic strategist James Carville on "Good Morning America." "Give the guy some credit. They've pushed a lot of stuff out there real early, and they're getting up early and working late."
In Washington, Everybody Is Simon Cowell
The president tried to laugh off the criticism when he was with Leno.
"I do think in Washington it's a little bit like 'American Idol,' except everybody is Simon Cowell," Obama said.
Critics also took a swing at the president for filling out his NCAA picks on ESPN.
"The AIG bonuses make the president subject to the charge that he's living above the store but he's not minding it," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. "He's even found time to fill out his NCAA basketball brackets, which is a healthy thing to do in my opinion."
They seized on comments made by Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, who jokingly pretended to be perturbed by the president picking rival North Carolina to go all the way and not tapping Duke to even make it to the Final Four.
"Somebody said that we're not in President Obama's Final Four," Krzyzewski said from the Blue Devils' first-round site in Greensboro, N.C. "And as much as I respect what he's doing, really, the economy is something that he should focus on, probably more than the brackets."
What Republicans did not quote was Coach K's follow-up comment: "Why would I care about that? I love the guy and I think he's going to be great."
Obama replied to the joking jab on "Leno," saying his right-hand man Reggie Love -- who played basketball and football for Duke -- gave him a hard time about the picks.
"I got a hard time from Reggie, because he played at Duke, and you know, Coach K, being competitive, I think was a little -- you know, pushed back a little bit today. And I understand that. That's what you want. You want everybody to be competitive. I think these are all great teams," he told Leno.
The White House says these other issues being raised are just noise and what the president will continue to push is his agenda to fix the economy.