Last week, President Obama gaffed. While appearing on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” to push his outrageous budget, Obama was quizzed by Leno about his famously incompetent bowling. Obama bragged that he’d recently bowled a 129; Leno chuckled. Then Obama let loose with a remark that should rightfully haunt him the rest of his career: “It’s like – it was like the Special Olympics or something.”
Obama apologized for the joke by calling up the head of the Special Olympics, who quickly covered for him. His press secretary, Robert Gibbs, apologized on his behalf, stating that Obama recognizes that disabled people “deserve a lot better than the thoughtless joke that he made last night.” But Obama made no direct apology to those with disabilities. He did not release a statement. He did not do anything that could be construed as a public pronouncement of remorse. He slandered the disabled before millions, then apologized behind the scenes.
There are those who say we should look beyond silly mistakes like Obama’s feeble joke. We’ve got more important things on our plate, they say. We’re in the midst of a deep recession, and we’re still fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Why focus on a single botched quip?
The answer is simple: Americans have a right to focus on the character of their president. They didn’t do so before he was elected – instead they focused on the color of his skin, the diversity of his background, the eloquence of his speeches. But now that America has enjoyed its “transformational moment,” it’s time to get to know the man we elected to the White House.
And gaffes are the best way to get to know a politician. Politicians carefully craft their images, burnishing their credentials and hiding their faults. They present their best side to the camera at all times. They present a mask to the world. Gaffes are the brief moments when the mask slips, when the true people behind the facades emerge. We learned about Bill Clinton when he explained, “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is”: he was a slippery lawyer accustomed to manipulating the truth. We learned about George H.W. Bush when he visited a supermarket and was amazed by the scanning technology: He was out of touch.
What do we learn about Obama from the “Special Olympics” gaffe? We learn, first and foremost, what we already knew: Obama is an elitist with a high-school sense of humor. Laughing at the Special Olympics is a habit of the overgrown sophomores who populate the intellectual salons at places like Harvard Law School; it’s not uncommon to label political opponents “retarded” behind closed doors, political correctness be damned. Obama is a self-important Ivy League type entranced with his own brilliance.
But Obama’s gaffe teaches us something else about him: For all his talk about compassion, he sees those below him on the physical, socioeconomic and educational scale as inferior. They are, at best, sheep to be led. They are, at worst, lifelong liabilities. Sure, Obama says he bowls like a Special Olympian – but the implication is that he does not think or lead like a Special Olympian. He is above that.
In fact, he is at a level of sophistication in understanding that far surpasses ordinary Americans. That is why Obama sees government as the only solution to every crisis – with him at the top, government is Aristotelian rule of the best. Americans, in Obama’s view, are a nation of children – which is why, in his Inaugural Address, Obama encouraged us to “set aside childish things.” And we can only do so, presumably, with Obama’s leadership.
My grandfather worked at Easter Seals, an organization dedicated to helping the disabled. My father’s first childhood memory was meeting physically disabled children. During his grade-school years, my father used to get into fights with kids who would taunt the “special ed” kids. My mother taught autistic children; my wife works with children who suffer from ADHD and depression.
All of these kids are special and deserve respect. They are not “Special Olympians,” to be painted as inadequate and ridiculous. They are human beings. They are individuals.
But individuality doesn’t seem to factor into Obama’s thinking. Where he’s from, everyone is a type: “Special Olympians,” “childish Americans,” benighted right-wing bigots. Everyone, that is, except for Barack Obama. He’s The One. And even if he can’t bowl, he’s still better than the rest of us.