You can't win, White House press corps. Your frantic and stupid attempts—motivated by a misplaced sense of fair play—to pin down Barack Obama as a gaffe-prone president won't work. Here's why.
The press stopped frothing about AIG failure-bonuses this morning for a brief diversion into Barack Obama's hatred of retarded people. Keith Olbermann was apparently the first to note last night that on the Tonight Show Obama had joked, in response to Jay Leno's patronizing praise for the president's 129 bowling high score, that to express encouragement for such a low score was "like the Special Olympics or something."
ABC News' Jake Tapper followed quickly with a post on his blog claiming, absurdly, that Obama had "insulted the disabled" and suggesting that he may never risk a late-show appearance again.
Gaffe-mongering is an essential tool in any White House reporter's toolbox, and has been used to great effect against many a president—Gerald Ford obviously never recovered from his slip down the rain-slicked jetway stairs of Air Force One, and George W. Bush, well, you know. But after eight years of calling out Bush for every unforced error, the press is under pressure to apply the same standard Obama—not to mention hoping for the bump in traffic and viewership that can accompany a genuine gaffe-fueled outrage. The stakes are higher with Obama because of his smooth, competent manner—punching through a false veneer is sort of like the journalistic equivalent of a Triple Word Score.
Obama's presidency was literally born with a gaffe, as he stumbled over the oath of office on the most important day of his life. Since then various news organizations and right-wing critics have tried to pin him down under a parade of horribles, suggesting he is secretly oafish for:
- Bumping his head on Marine One.
- Mistaking an Oval Office window for a door and trying to open it.
- Saying "profit and earnings ratio" when he meant "price-to-earnings."
- Giving the British Prime Minister a bunch of DVDs as a gift.
- Reading the wrong speech on a teleprompter and thanked himself.
- Not knowing where the automobile was invented.
None of it has made the crucial jump from cable news chatter to Saturday Night Live caricature. It's like Obama is holding Tapper et. al. at bay with and extended hand against the forehead, and they keep swinging at air. Aggrieved right-wingers see a double-standard, but the fact is, the only gaffes that will stick to Obama are the ones that shed some light on who he actually is. Ford wasn't unfairly painted as a bumbling doofus—you could hear the reverberations of all those football concussions in his slurred, affectless voice. Bush wasn't unfairly portrayed as a clueless and callow upward-failer—everything about his presidency is a testament to the accuracy of that sketch.
But Obama doesn't hate retarded people, nor is he insensitive to their concerns. He is, if any caricature is to be applied, a socialist wealth redistributor who wants more welfare for retarded people. Moreover, there was no ridicule or mean-spiritedness in the Special Olympics quip. It is like the Special Olympics when one receives praise for performance in a sport that might otherwise, under different circumstances, be deemed unpraiseworty. Not because Special Olympians are mediocre athletes—they're not!—but because one of the tenets of the Special Olympics is that poor performers still deserve praise for their efforts.
Moreover, Obama did what he almost always does when he gets hammered for some untoward comment—he sucked it up and apologized immediately, before it even looked like he was pressured into it. The hope was probably that it would cut the gaffe-cycle off before it got going, which clearly failed. But it also seems kind of like he just apologized because he figured it was the right thing to do. And it's pretty hard to find rancor and insensitivity in a guy who says the kind of thing everybody always says, and then apologizes right away because he realizes he's the president and shouldn't speak freely all the time.
Now, in an attempt to keep the gaffe alive, TMZ is reporting that Kolan McConiughey, a Special Olympian who has bowled three perfect 300 games, has challenged Obama to a game. We have absolutely zero doubt in our mind that Obama will take McConiughey up on the offer, which will make him look like a magnanimous and affable guy, which, let's face it, he is.
More profitable gaffe-hunting should focus on the caricature that has turned up on Saturday Night Live: That he's a pussy.