If the Presidency of Richard Nixon taught us anything it is that the most powerful man in the world should be very careful what he says into a microphone.
With the growing fallout from his crack on “The Tonight Show” about the Special Olympics, Barack Obama, like Nixon, like Ronald Reagan, like Bill Clinton, and like Dick Cheney before him, needs to remember the difference between inside thoughts and outside thoughts.
Perhaps it’s a learning curve or perhaps we’re seeing a bit of the real man behind the mask, but the President also needs to learn that in his position, there really is no difference anymore.
The Watergate scandal ended Nixon’s Presidency but in many ways it didn’t define it. Even for those who admire Nixon’s diplomatic achievements, his historic outreach to China being far from the least of them, the prejudices and pottymouth of the man will always leave a foul personal taste.
Enemies Lists, wiretapping and the other crimes of his administration seem personally less offensive, even thought they were constitutionally far more threatening, than the 37th President’s numerous off-color and off-the-cuff remarks about African-Americans, Jews, his enemies, foreign leaders and even some of his cabinet and supposed close political friends. They show a President who, for all his mastery of geopolitics, was consumed with bile and rage.
Even in the modern age, where a President’s every move is documented and tagged and the smallest gesture can have huge consequence. Ronald Reagan, a genial President if ever there was one, had his dark moments, too.
In 1988, watching his Vice-President George H. W. Bush struggling in the polls, the lame duck President reverse engineered a scathing comment similar to Obama’s Special Olympics remark. Asked by a reporter about rumors of the then Democratic Presidential nominee Michael Dukakis’ mental health, the deft and sometimes conveniently deaf President, replied "I’m not going to pick on a cripple" without missing a beat.
Watching Barack Obama last night on Leno, it was obvious that the President, like Ronald Reagan back at that late ‘80s press conference, was feeling in his element. He made his points about the economy and his approach to deal with it. He appeared humbled enough to almost make you forget he has a card in his pocket with codes to unleash Armageddon.
It was a bravo partisan performance, until he started talking about his bowling and how his score was "like the Special Olympics or something."
That was where it all went wrong. Missed at first by most pundits and journalists, who were busy praising Obama’s performance, that comment at the expense of the mental challenged has come to dominate the President’s entire California trip and what he thought would be a triumphant return to D.C. The President’s men were on it much faster, they had Obama calling Special Olympics chairman Tim Shriver from Air Force One to apologize even before the pre-taped Tonight Show was broadcast.
"He expressed his disappointment and he apologized in a way that was very moving," Shriver told ABC’s “Good Morning America” Friday. The chairman, whose mother Eunice Kennedy-Shriver founded the nonprofit Special Olympics for those with intellectual disabilities in 1968, wasn’t entirely about to let the President have a pass.
"I think it’s important to see that words hurt and words do matter, Shriver told ABC, "and these words that in some respect can be seem as humiliating or a put down to people with special needs do cause pain and they do result in stereotypes."
California First Lady Maria Shriver released a statement that, like her brother’s TV comments, let the President, of whom she is a big supporter, off the hook personally. But she also reminded him that such a joke "hurts millions of people throughout the world."
Obama’s Special Olympics comment does hurt many people. The comment also sticks the knife in all the deeper because it comes from such a symbol of equality as Barack Obama. All that is true. What is also true, past the jokes and banter on “The Tonight Show” set, is that it tells us more about our current President than perhaps some of us would like to admit.
Like Ronald Reagan, for who he has repeatedly expressed great admiration, Barack Obama is an immensely popular and verbally dexterous President. Of course there is arrogance and steeliness to the man. There is to everyone who even thinks they could be President, let alone those who actually get there. But there is also a meanness to Barack Obama and last night’s crack on Leno wasn’t the first time we’ve seen it slip out.
Just days after being elected, Obama made a crack, an out of context and factually incorrect crack it might be added, about Nancy Reagan. Asked if he had spoken with any of his predecessors since his victory, Obama said he’d spoken to all former presidents "that are living." Then, unable to end it there, he said with a grin, "I didn’t want to get into a Nancy Reagan thing about, you know, doing any séances."
Needless to say, Obama was on the phone not long afterwards apologizing to the former First Lady for, as his team called it, "for the careless and offhanded remark."
The point, the lesson of Barack Obama’s Special Olympic remark is that the President of the United States, a man who has broken one of the great barriers in American life, a man who has overcome great personal trials, has a very mean and very cold side to him.
On days when body counts and national security are on the Situation Room table, that’s a necessary characteristic. On the other days, the majority of days, it’s not. All Presidents and Vice Presidents are human and all humans make mistakes. But not all of us hold such power, both politically and symbolically, as Barack Obama.
It is time for the new President, as he grows into the office, to remember that and to do it justice … for the millions and millions of children who suffer the frustrations of the limitations of their abilities and to the millions of families whose hearts break at the prejudices and pain those children must face every day for the rest of their lives.
To them, Mr. President, sorry is not good enough.