The hallowed halls of political power in Washington, DC are known for a great many things. But if we’re being entirely candid, humor is not among them. This is not to say that the inhabitants of the city are incapable of being funny, even when laughter is not the response the politicians desired.

John F. Kennedy’s brief term in the White House treated the public to flashes of humor; there was even a book entitled “The Kennedy Wit.” A century earlier, President Lincoln responded to complaints about General Ulysses S. Grant’s alleged drunkenness by quipping that someone should find out what brand Grant was drinking and send a case of it to every other general in the union army.

So, when a politician’s attempt at humor falls flat this is not generally considered newsworthy. Unless, that is, you are President Obama and the joke has the Special Olympics as a perceived punch line.

The president’s unfortunate gaffe took place during his appearance on the “Tonight Show” with host Jay Leno. The purpose of the appearance, the first by a sitting chief executive (Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton made appearances on the show with the late host, Johnny Carson, before they were elected to the White House) was to tout his plans for the economy.

But as a side comment about his bowling skills, Obama, who had famously rolled a gutter ball during the campaign, said he had been practicing on the White House lanes and earned an unimpressive score of 129. “It was, like, the Special Olympics or something,” he said in an off-hand comment that drew laughter from the audience.

The president immediately recognized the potential for hurt caused by his joke and contacted Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver to apologize and express his support for the organization. Shriver, whose mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, created the Special Olympics program, accepted the apology.

His sister Maria, the wife of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, said in a statement that, “While I am confident that President Obama never intended to offend anyone, the response that his comments have caused, coupled with the reaction of a prime-time audience, demonstrate the need to continue to educate the non-disabled community on the issues that confront those with a developmental disability.’

In contrast to the graciousness of the Shriver’s comments, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, the former GOP vice presidential hopeful now touted in some media corners as the “front runner” for the Republicans in 2012, said she was “shocked…by [the] degrading remark about our world’s most precious and unique people, coming from the most powerful position in the world.”

Palin’s remarks, however, underscore the condescending and paternalistic attitudes that the civil rights movement for persons with disabilities has struggled against for decades.

“President Obama’s joke was not simply in bad taste but displayed some very disappointing insensitivity on his part,” one activist with disabilities said. “I would have expected better from him. But on the other hand, it was a ‘spur of the moment’ comment, and he promptly apologized.”

Yet, the activist continued, “I am equally upset by Sarah Palin’s remarks about ‘precious’ and ‘unique’ people. It is one thing to make a gaffe, quite another to issue a prepared statement. All people are unique, but to say that Special Olympics participants are ‘precious’ is dehumanizing in itself. Many Special Olympians are young adults. ‘Precious’ is a word used to describe a baby or young child.”

The Special Olympics is calling for a national day of awareness on March 31st to eliminate the word “retarded” (the R-word) from common usage.

“Most people don’t think of this word as hate speech, but that’s exactly what it feels like to millions of people with intellectual disabilities, their families and friends. This word is just as cruel and offensive as any other slur,” read the statement on the Special Olympics website.

“‘Spread the Word to End the Word’ will raise the consciousness of society about the dehumanizing and hurtful effects of the R-word and encourage people to pledge to stop using it. America will be asked to declare their support for more respectful and inclusive language, specifically that referring to those with intellectual disabilities.”

Lawrence Albright chairs the national at-large members club of the Communist Party USA. To contact him, or find out more about the at-large members club, email


Lawrence Albright
Lawrence Albright

Lawrence Albright is an activist, writer, and educator who writes from New Jersey.