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A Special Olympics Gold Medal in Stupid and Tasteless Remarks

The Tonight Show comment was just one example of a slip-up when the umbilical cord that links Obama to his teleprompter is severed.

by
Mike McNally

Bio

March 25, 2009 - 12:31 am

I’d like to add my voice to those who have condemned President Obama for the thoughtless, tasteless, and insulting remark he made during his appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. While I accept that Obama didn’t intend to cause offense, there’s no escaping the fact that his words have angered and upset millions of people. The damage has been done, and Americans must be wondering how the man they elected president, in large part because of his supposedly towering intellect and unsurpassed eloquence, could say something as stupid as: “I think Geithner is doing an outstanding job.”

What’s that? Oh, you’re talking about the other stupid and tasteless remark, when Obama likened his bowling skills to those of a competitor at the Special Olympics? Yep, that was also pretty dumb.

Those who have criticized Obama are of course right to do so, and those who have been offended by his remarks are entitled to feel aggrieved. Their reactions are genuine and understandable, unlike the mock outrage expressed by liberals last month over the New York Post’s chimp cartoon. And there was no room for ambiguity in this case: Obama likened his lack of bowling prowess to the performance of a disabled person.

In his defense, however (yes, I’m about to defend Obama — blink and you’ll miss it), it’s clear that Obama didn’t intend to disparage disabled sportsmen and women. He was trying to be self-deprecating, but as we’re seeing more and more, when the umbilical cord that links Obama to his teleprompter is severed, he has an unfortunate tendency to, as he puts it, “misspeak”.

Some of the blame for Obama’s slip can be laid at the door the culture of political correctness that has spawned terms such as “Special Olympics.” By inventing artificial labels for groups in a misguided attempt to spare people’s feelings, it is more likely that people will inadvertently say the wrong thing. It’s hard to believe that even an teleprompter-less Obama would have said “I bowl like a disabled person.” But terms such as “special” have become coded insults for incompetence or clumsiness, and it’s easier to cause offense, whether intended or not, when language is rendered deliberately imprecise.

Still, it was a wildly inappropriate thing to say, especially coming from a man who’s been lauded as the oratorical love child of Abraham Lincoln and JFK. Of course, those who have yet to imbibe the Obama Kool-Aid know different. During his time on the campaign trail and his few weeks in office, Obama has racked up almost as many gaffes as President Bush managed in eight years.

Their blunders are generally of a different order. Bush is genuinely tongue-tied, mangling his syntax and mispronouncing names; Obama, on the other hand, usually says exactly what he means, but with an apparent disregard for how his words will be interpreted. He delivers thoughtless or inaccurate statements flawlessly, as when he said he wouldn’t want his daughters to be “punished with a baby” or when he claimed American forces in Afghanistan were “just air-raiding villages and killing civilians.”

Many conservatives have rightly pointed out that if President Bush had made the Special Olympics remark, he would have received far harsher and enduring criticism that the mild finger-wagging that’s been directed at Obama. At the Huffington Post, for example, only around a quarter of respondents to a poll believe Obama’s remarks were “a tasteless comment that he should not have said, period.” The other 75% either excused the remark or think we shouldn’t even be talking about it. Imagine the lynch mob that would have assembled there had George Bush said the same thing.

While commentators are starting to note Obama’s propensity for gaffes, there’s no danger of him ever being subject to the ridicule that was directed at Bush. But there’s not much use in conservatives complaining. The double standard applied when reporting on the mistakes and foibles of Republicans and Democrats is deeply ingrained in America’s media and political culture, and denying that such a double standard exists is key to its maintenance. Conservatives getting worked up about Obama’s latest faux pas will find themselves talking mostly to each other.

The president was also fortunate in that he offended a group that tends not to unleash violent mobs in response to every real or imagined slight and that is well down the pecking order when it comes to winning the sympathy of the media, the grievance industry, and liberal received wisdom in general. (The pecking order, if you weren’t aware, goes race, sexual orientation, gender — with the rest left to fight it out for attention and representation.) If fact, the more extreme elements of those groups would prefer that disabled children were never born and would like to see many disabled adults euthanized, lest they detract from the utopia the leftists have in mind for us.

So while conservatives have enjoyed Obama’s brief period of discomfort, there’s much for them to feel aggrieved about as they watch him emerge more or less unscathed from the sort of episode that would have seriously damaged a lesser, more right-wing mortal (remember George Allen’s “macaca” moment?). But it’s important that they don’t waste too much time and energy going after Obama for his slip and wallowing in the manufactured indignation so beloved of the left.

Remember how, during the election campaign, Obama and his team would attempt to play down stories that had the potential to cause real damage — such as the revelations about Obama’s relationships with the Reverend Wright and Bill Ayers — by dismissing them as “distractions” from the “real issues facing Americans”? Well, the furor over the Special Olympics remark really is a distraction — and one which could work in Obama’s favor.

The row has generated a great deal of media coverage but caused little in the way of lasting damage to Obama. And he can turn it to his advantage by apologizing at every opportunity, by inviting disabled athletes to the White House for a photo-op, and perhaps even by taking up the challenge of a Special Olympics bowler. When he avoids insulting people, Obama does a pretty good line in self-deprecation, and he can reassure the American people that “Hey, I can be a real goofball sometimes, but that’s as bad as it gets.”

Because right now, nothing would make the president and his allies happier than for the Special Olympics gaffe to take up minutes at press conferences and hours and pages of news coverage, which might otherwise be devoted to the growing budget deficit, the alarming expansion of government, and the incompetence and dishonesty that have marked the first two months of the Obama regime. While that gaffe hurt and angered many people, it’s a trivial matter next to the damage being inflicted on the country by Obama’s administration and his Democrat cronies in Congress.

Conservatives need to save their harshest criticism of Obama for the biggest issues. But they can also take encouragement from the fact that, despite the media running defense on his behalf, the American people must be starting to realize that Obama is not the cool, composed, and effortlessly articulate operator his supporters in the media would have them believe. And having been disabused of that notion, perhaps they’ll start to wonder about other aspects of the Obama myth. The emperor still has his clothes, but a few threads are beginning to unravel.

Mike McNally is a journalist based in Bath, England. He posts at PJ Tatler and at his own blog Monkey Tennis, and tweets at @notoserfdom. When he's not writing about politics he writes about Photoshop.
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