WASHINGTON — Gov. Sarah Palin on Friday criticized President Barack Obama's gaffe about the Special Olympics, calling his off-handed remark on the Tonight Show "degrading," especially since it was "coming from the most powerful position in the world."
"These athletes overcome more challenges, discrimination and adversity than most of us ever will," Palin said in a statementiday. "By the way, these athletes can outperform many of us and we should be proud of them. I hope President Obama’s comments do not reflect how he truly feels about the special needs community."
Obama apologized for his remark shortly after his Thursday night appearance on NBC's Tonight Show with Jay Leno. His gaffe came toward the end of the interview, when the Tonight Show host ribbed Obama about his less-than-stellar bowling skills, which were derided on the campaign trail. Obama joked he had been practicing and recently bowled a 129. Leno offered tongue-in-cheek praise, saying "that's very good, Mr. President."
"It's like -- it was like Special Olympics, or something," Obama responded.
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Palin, whose son, Trig, was born with Down syndrome last year, appeared in a video promoting this year's winter Special Olympics games in Boise, Idaho. In it, she held Trig and talked about how important participating in the Special Olympics will be to her son's future happiness, especially in a sports-loving family.
"Thanks to Special Olympics, we know for certain that Trig is going to have every opportunity to enjoy sports and competition that all of our other children have," Palin said in the video. She riffed on her infamous hockey-mom-and-lipstick line from when she was introduced last summer to the nation as Sen. John McCain's vice presidential running mate.
"You know what the difference is between a hockey mom and a Special Olympics hockey mom?" Palin said. "Nothing."
The president's hasty apology came shortly after the Tonight Show was taped in California. White House spokesman Bill Burton released a statement while the president was flying back to Washington D.C. on Air Force One.
"The President made an offhand remark making fun of his own bowling that was in no way intended to disparage the Special Olympics," Burton said. "He thinks that the Special Olympics are a wonderful program that gives an opportunity to shine to people with disabilities from around the world."
En route to Washington, the president also called and offered an apology to the chairman of the Special Olympics, Tim Shriver, whose mother Eunice Kennedy Shriver founded the Special Olympics in 1968. Shriver also told Good Morning America that there's a Special Olympics athlete from Detroit who has bowled three perfect games and would be thrilled to offer the president some tips.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger also weighed in. His wife, Maria Shriver, is Tim Shriver's brother; both Schwarzenegger and his wife have served as Special Olympics ambassadors.
"I know where his heart is at," Schwarzenegger said of the president, outside the White House Friday afternoon. "He loves Special Olympics, and he will do everything he can to help Special Olympics. And every one of us sometimes makes a mistake. Something comes out of your mouth and you say 'Oops, I wish I wouldn't have said that.' I've had many of those."
Maria Shriver was a little more critical: "Often times we don't realize that when we laugh at comments like this it hurts millions of people throughout the world," she said. "People with special needs are great athletes and productive citizens, and I look forward to working with the President to knock down myths and stereotypes about this community."
Friday afternoon, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs repeated the president's apology during his daily briefing.
"I know that the president believes that the Special Olympics are a triumph of the human spirit, and I think he understands that they deserve a lot better than -- than the thoughtless joke that he made last night, and he apologizes for that," Gibbs said.