President Obama might as well have told Jay Leno that he bowled like a insert the insulting word beginning with R that refers to a person with developmental disabilities.
But, to his credit he didn't. Give him a point for that much. Instead, he referenced his bowling inepitude by telling Leno, "It's like the Special Olympics or something." (You can read the whole account of the incident here.)
Make no mistake, there is no mistaking what the President meant by that sorry attempt at humor. He meant that he bowled like someone with physical challenges, like someone who was not in control of his or her body.
Which clearly Obama was not, when denigrating the Special Olympics and the athletes who work so hard and achieve so much.
One only needed to listen to callers on the morning drive talk-show program that I listen to religiously who called up this morning to justify and defend Obama's remark. It was harmless, they said, an unmalicious comment. Cut him some slack already.
Which I am usually one to do. (Full disclosure time: I voted for the guy, I support the guy, I like most of what he's done thus far).
But here's why this is a problem - because when people are unaware of why this is a problem, that means it's a problem.
When the President of the United States needs to do a mea culpa for offending people with disabilities, that's a problem. I don't give a shit how tired he is, how pre-occupied he is, how much the weight of the economic mess is on his mind. If those factors are present, then don't go on "The Tonight Show." We've had our fill of Presidents as Entertainers-in-Chief, thank you very much. But more than that, it is deeply troubling to me that a comment so offensive can slip so easily out of our Commander-in-Chief's mouth.
(Can you just hear Sarah Palin now? I'm sure she's ready for her close-up, just dying to sink her manicured claws into this one. This isn't change we can believe in, she'll say. This isn't what Ameeer-rica needs at this time. John McCain and I would have been true friends to people with disabilities in the White House. You betcha!)
As I was listening to the account, my mind went into PR/crisis communication mode (as, apparently, did Obama's press secretary, who from Air Force One quickly got Tim Shriver, the head of Special Olympics, on the horn to give him a heads-up on the faux-pas. Keeping in mind, of course, that the Shrivers and Kennedys were beaucoup backers of Barack's back in the campaigning day.) Just you watch, I said to myself and all the other northbound drivers on the expressway. By the end of the morning, Obama will have invited some of the Special Olympians to The White House for bowling.
And indeed, it seems that exactly such a photo opportunity is in the works.
To his credit, Shriver accepted Obama's "very moving" apology by saying, “These words in some respect, can be seen as humiliating or a put-down to people with special needs,” Shriver said. “This language needs to be a teachable moment, I think, for our country.”
Indeed. Obama has a better opportunity here than a chance to improve his dismal bowling score or to host a photo op with the Special Olympians. He's center-stage with a generation of Americans who, aside from being awake enough to watch The Tonight Show, commonly and routinely use the r-word in daily conversation. I know this to be true as I see it on a regular basis from my own under-30-something co-workers (and sadly, even some who are in their 40s) who hurl the r-word while in my direct presence and who also know damn well that my son has autism.
Obama can seize this teachable moment to say that what he said was wrong and symptomatic of a culture that accepts insulting language being directed towards people with disabilities. Doing so won't change everyone's verbal diarrhea tendencies on this issue, but if it gets through to even one person, then maybe - maybe - we can begin to topple the mentality that this is OK.