In the aftermath of an inopportune remark by US President Barack Obama, Laura Dunne examines the need for prominent figures to be wary about what they say in public.

While appearing recently on The Tonight Show, Barack Obama made a comment intended to poke fun at himself for his bowling skills. However, he ended up comparing his poor score of 129 to those participating in the Special Olympics.

As host Jay Leno teased the President, sarcastically applauding his score, Obama replied “it was like Special Olympics or something”. Although it seems clear that this comment was not made in a malicious way, when one of the most powerful men in the world makes an offensive remark such as this, whether it was meant as derogatory or not, it is going to have ramifications.

The President’s appearance on the chat show was eagerly anticipated by US citizens and the last thing he wanted to do was make a blunder such as this. It is reported that directly after his interview with Leno, Obama rang Timothy Shriver, chairman of the Special Olympics, warning of his comment and stating that it did not reflect his personal views.

When Bill Burton, a spokesperson for the White House, spoke out about the quip, he said that President Obama’s comment “was in no way intended to disparage the Special Olympics.” He continued his attempt at damage control, “the Special Olympics is a wonderful program that gives an opportunity for people with disabilities from around the world”.

Although the President appeared regretful of his quip, it does not change the fact that many people will be offended by it. Shriver commented that although the President apologised; the comment was still “humiliating” and “a put-down to people with special needs”. Words such as these “do cause pain and they do result in stereotypes.” Obama did however recognise his gaffe and Shriver described him as “sincere” in his apology.

In light of the controversy surrounding the new President’s comment, it’s almost impossible not to be reminded of the many public gaffes made by his immediate predecessor, George W. Bush. It is indisputable that Obama has not put his foot in his mouth half as much as the former President, who can claim whole websites dedicated to his many public blunders.

“When in the public eye a definite amount of care needs to be taken in expressing one’s views so as not to discriminate against anyone.”

Even with the numerous advisors populating the White House, gaffes like Obama’s are, to an extent, inevitable. Although it was a remark made in very bad taste, at the end of the day the President is only human.

The question of whether his popularity will be compromised after the quip is still to be seen, however. In the wake of the comment there has been huge media attention. It has been the only aspect of his 40 minute interview on The Tonight Show that has been discussed exhaustively.

On the show, the President appeared relaxed and very good humored. He made various jokes and talked about serious topics such as the AIG bonuses, Air Force One and the Secret Service as well as more trivial ones like American Idol and his bowling skills. If taken in the context of his full interview the President, perhaps excluding his unfortunate comment, appeared to be a normal person like the rest of us.

When in the public eye a definite amount of care needs to be taken in expressing one’s views so as not to discriminate against anyone. Whether the President of the United States, or even a celebrity, public figures have a major impact on the lives of those who watch and look up to them.

Many people respect and idolise those who live in the spotlight and so it can have an undesirable effect on the attitudes of people when those in the public eye make insensitive comments. Will Obama’s comment affect the attitudes of people looking up to him; will they think it is now acceptable to make a joke of the Special Olympics?

It certainly seems clear that this was not the intention of the President yet eyebrows will be raised whenever someone, who holds a lot of respect and admiration in the public eye, speaks slanderously about any topic. However insensitive his comment, it is notable that the President was aware of his inappropriateness and apologised immediately for his remark. Let’s hope he does not follow in the footsteps of his predecessor and make a habit of them.


Foot in mouth disease: painful political gaffes from the past

In 1986 while on a visit to China, Prince Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh reportedly warned a group of British students that, “If you stay here much longer, you’ll all be slitty-eyed”.

“Are you Indian or Pakistani? I can never tell the difference between you chaps.”
Once again, The Duke of Edinburgh.

“I’m honoured to shake the hand of a brave Iraqi citizen who had his hand cut off by Saddam Hussein.” George. W. Bush

“I have opinions of my own – strong opinions – but I don’t always agree with them”. George Bush

“Why is Chelsea Clinton so ugly? Because her father is Janet Reno”. John McCain