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Barack Obama Didn’t Insult Special Olympics Kids in Quite the Way You May Have Heard He Did

This week the New York Times repeated a common error about the bad Special Olympics joke Barack Obama made to Jay Leno on The Tonight Show in March of 2009.

“[Obama] had to make another apology after joking that his bad bowling skills qualified him for the Special Olympics.”

That isn’t what Obama said, although it’s almost always reported that way. Since even The Times is still reporting it wrongly, it seems worth setting the record straight.

Here’s what happened: After talking at length with Obama about the economy, Leno turned to some light chatter about the White House. See the video for yourself — in this short version from ABC News, or in the complete version from NBC (at about 3:55 from the end). [2011 update: Both those links are now down. Try this YouTube link instead.]

The transcript:

Leno: “Are they going to put a basketball — I imagine the bowling alley has been just burned and closed down.”

Obama: “No no. I’ve been pract– I have been practicing bowling…”

Leno: “Really. Really!”

Obama: “I ah, I bowled a 129…which…”

   (Audience cheers and laughter)

Obama: “Yes, I had… I…”

   (Obama laughs as he spots Leno half-hiding a “that’s terrible” face.)

Leno (now clapping and falsely encouraging): “Oh no, that’s very good, yeah. No, that’s very good, Mr. President.”

Obama (laughing) says a few unintelligible syllables, then: “This is like, this is like Special Olympics or something.”

Leno: (Making another comic face) “No, that, that… no, that’s very good.”

Obama: “The, ah… no, no, listen, I, I, ah, I’m… I’m making progress on, on the bowling. Yeah.”

Obama is clearly not “joking that his bad bowling skills qualified him for the Special Olympics.”

He’s joking that Leno’s phony praise is like the Special Olympics practice of praising every competitor no matter how they perform.

The joke is, “Your effusive praise for my bad score is like the effusive praise for competitors with low scores at the Special Olympics.”

The clincher is on the video: As he says “This is like Special Olympics,” Obama actually gestures toward Leno (who is switching back to milking laughs with another “that’s terrible” face).

It was still a bad joke and a tone-deaf joke, for sure. (Should a president ever make a joke containing the words “Special Olympics”? Probably not.) But there’s a huge difference between saying “I bowled as bad as a handicapped kid” — which is cruel — and the wisecrack-gone-wrong remark the President actually made.

Had Obama meant to say he bowled like he was in the Special Olympics, he would have said “IT was like the Special Olympics” or “THAT was like” or even “I bowled like.” But he didn’t.

Still, the joke was almost uniformly misreported the next day (including by ABC News in that story linked above). Some were worse than others. The LA Times:

“It’s like — it was like Special Olympics or something,” the president said, prompting laughter from the audience.

Entertainment Weekly had it even more wrong, with Obama saying, “That was like the Special Olympics or something.” And so on.

The White House didn’t try to correct the misquotes, undoubtedly because the only thing worse than the joke would have been to tell the press, “Let’s spend the next few news cycles discussing the nuances of the president’s Special Olympics joke.” Better to apologize and let it die.

But it would still be nice to have it reported right going forward.

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