CNN Senior National Editor
That was the comment from the head of the Special Olympics, reacting after President Obama apologized for an ill-fated joke on late-night television. It was the most high-profile moment in a week where politicians had plenty of trouble with microphones.
Some of the moments were trivial, others were at the heart of the nation’s weightiest issues. More than once, the two collided.
It started silly. Vice President Biden learned a lesson many before him have learned…private conversations aren’t private if a mic is nearby.
There was no luck of the Irish at a White House St. Patrick’s Day ceremony when a teleprompter problem had Irish Prime Minister Cowen re-reading part of President Obama’s speech.
And March Madness: The President’s NCAA picks and Duke’s coach suggesting he should focus on the economy and not brackets.
The straight-faced Coach K was joking.
But others weren’t when they cited that in criticizing the President’s job performance. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) said “the AIG bonuses make the President subject to the charge that he’s living above the store but he’s not minding it. He’s even found time to fill out his NCAA basketball brackets.”
And Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) added, “I appreciate that President Obama has completed his March Madness tournament bracket. Yet the organizational chart of his Administration still has far too many open slots.”
Other AIG comments made people do a double take. In what may be the first recorded use of this word on the floor of the House of Representatives, Congressman Steve LaTourette (R-Ohio) said the bonuses were causing “the tightening of sphincters on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue as people are having to explain who put into the stimulus bill this provision of law.”
And Senator Charles Grassley complained people took his comments too literally when he said of AIG bosses, “maybe they ought to be removed. But I would suggest the first thing that would make me feel a little bit better toward them if they'd follow the Japanese example and come before the American people and take that deep bow and say 'I'm sorry,' and then either do one of two things: resign or go commit suicide. And in the case of the Japanese, they usually commit suicide before they make any apology."
The Senator also became a brief YouTube attraction with a blunt assessment of bailout company payouts. Using a phrase often heard on the Hill with the more genteel word “teet”, Grassley said, “from my standpoint it is irresponsible for corporations to give bonuses at this time when they are sucking the tit of the taxpayer.”
Harder to explain for Senator Chris Dodd (D-Connecticut) was his role in the stimulus bill provision that helped allow the bonuses to go forward. He first denied to CNN on camera any involvement in adding the language, before later acknowledging he agreed to the changes after a request from the Treasury Department.
Back home in Connecticut, under political fire, a defiant Dodd continued trying to explain his decision. The Senate Banking Committee chairman told reporters, “I agreed reluctantly. I was changing the amendment because others were insistent."
He said he was misled about the nature of the amendment, claiming “"If I knew (the purpose of the changes) was to protect bonuses, I would have flatly rejected” it.
Saying he won’t be caught up in two years of negative politics as he faces re-election, he said, “it’s not about my job”. Dodd said the issue is the jobs of people in his state.
“Politics will take care of itself”, he said, "I'll either once again earn the respect and confidence of the people of this state, or I won't."
For President Obama, a trip to California was another chance to escape the political fights in Washington. His two-day swing in the state with one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates was a chance to sell his economic strategies, and express more anger over the AIG bonuses even as his own Treasury Department drew much of the fire.
At a campaign-style town hall, Mr. Obama had microphone problems of his own – literally. The event microphone failed, causing the President at one point to say, “Okay, hold on one second. If we've got a replacement mic, that would be helpful because this one's going in and out a little bit.”
The stop included a first-ever presidential appearance on a late night entertainment show, as Mr. Obama went on the “Tonight Show with Jay Leno”. There, the microphone problem was the President’s own doing. In an attempt to joke about his lack of bowling ability, something he often made fun of as a candidate, he joked “it was like Special Olympics or something”.
Mr. Obama intended his light-hearted comments on White House life, and his “stunned” comments about AIG to be the lasting impression from the appearance.
But even before the show aired, a spokesman had to do damage control. He told reporters on Air Force One returning to Washington the President’s comment was in “no way intended to disparage the Special Olympics”.
White House officials said Mr. Obama called Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver before the segment aired to apologize, and reiterate he’s a big supporter of the program. The President extended an invitation to Special Olympic athletes to come to the White House to bowl or play basketball.
Shriver in a statement called the apology “sincere and heartfelt”. But he urged the President to “take the lead and consider hiring a Special Olympics athlete to work in the White House...to help end misperceptions about the talents and abilities of the people with intellectual disabilities.”
He called the joke “a teachable moment for the country”.
And in a week where a few too many words may have been poorly chosen, Shriver’s comment that words do matter could carry some extra meaning.
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