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March 21st, 2009
01:23 PM ET

Words matter

Steve Brusk
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.

soundoff (14 Responses)
  1. Mary

    Anderson, I believe you would be doing us all a favor if 360 would start a log of all things to do with the government stimulus and recovery. You know and itemized bill.
    What bill was passed. What dollar amount was promised and who has received what amount . This all started back in Sept. 2008 with the TARP recovery plan @ 770 Billion passed by congress.
    Can you give us a running total of how much the government is spending? Who is receiving the money and how much money they receive and for what purpose? I cannot even keep up with all the different places they are doling out this money let alone what the total amount is to date. I for one would like to know how much we are in debt. This has all gotten out of hand. President Obama and the congress seem to think they have a blank check to offer money whereever they think they can. I believe the taxpayers should have more of a say so in when enough is enough. You know the saying " throwing good money after bad".

    March 21, 2009 at 9:42 pm |
  2. Suzanne

    Why is it that the media and anyone else who has lots of time on thier hands is desperate to hang Obama, looking for anything that could implicate him to tear him down. Thankgod he is a man of character, who has class, who continues to push on regardless of what the "little ppl" think or say. He has more class than Bush ever had.

    The very ppl that built him up are now in the process of tearing him down word for word gesture by gesture.
    Do you guys put the videos on slow speed so you can catch every last word every movement.

    And now he has to hire someone who is a special olympics athelete because GOD forbid we offend anyone. Before you know it you will have to hire terrorists at Airlines because again Godforbid we offend anyone or any group!

    People need to suck it up and get over themselves. Maybe those that are picking Obama apart should concentrate on real newsworthy stuff Oh pardon me that is an OXYmoron is it not. I love your program Anderson I just think there is enough s%^t in the world and we need to concentrate on finding GOOD things to talk about.

    Loved you on Ellen 🙂

    March 21, 2009 at 8:05 pm |
  3. J. D. Nunn

    I Believe: If we took 480 8Th grade students from across the country and placed them in the House, then 100 11th graders and placed them in the Senate, half republicans and half democrats, they then
    could solve our problems within eigth months.

    Why! Because they would not be sold out to special interest.

    Special interest runs Our USA, not our elected officials

    March 21, 2009 at 7:54 pm |
  4. Chris Potter

    I find it disappointing that people would criticize our President just because he had time to fill out his basketball choices. Are we not to expect him to lead a personal life in addition to running our country? He is still a person, no matter his level of responsibilities, and he can't spend every waking moment worrying about something that will take time to work through. I say "lighten up".

    March 21, 2009 at 7:37 pm |
  5. Annie Kate

    I'm sorry to see Senator Alexander from Tennessee joining in on the sniping from the GOP side of the aisle. He was my governor once when I lived in Tennessee and I thought a great one. I remember those times fondly as well as him. Now, though, I am disappointed – his political statements show an adherence to classic conservative GOP with no independent thought of his own – somehow I expected better of someone who used to be one of the politicians I thought of as the best all around. I suppose all our leaders do have clay feet. Which brings me to Obama's remark – we are unrealistic to expect every word that comes from the President's mouth to be golden and not offend someone; he is just as human as the rest of us. And while words do matter, there is more attention given his words than anyone else's – of course he's going to trip up once in a while. We should accept his apology and move forward without analyzing it for a week and making a big deal over a misspeak. Too much important stuff to do right now.

    March 21, 2009 at 7:26 pm |
  6. T.G.

    Yes,words do matter. And who knows that better than Mr. O. For the past two years now,loyalists,supporters,and some "media groupies", have put Mr. O on such a high pedestal,that he can't see the bottom. During the campaign,he was the "good guy",and Hillary was the "Bad girl". She couldn't say a word,unless it was analyzed to death for truthfulness,honesty,and execution. I'm a proud Independent who supported Hillary Clinton,and I still feel she should have been treated with more respect. But sadly, that ship has sailed.

    Mr. O has gotten away with too many gaffes,which are only a fancy word for "truth hiccup". Just like the infamous fund raiser he held in San Francisco,Mr. O has two sides to him. One side is Mr. "Cool Under Fire" Teleprompter reader,and the other is naughty "Frat Boy".

    Why does he seem to be able to apologize and all is forgiven,when Hillary couldn't even buy the media's forgiveness when she made a gaffe? When are we going to get past the charm,the wit,the smile,the smooth operator that is Prince Obama,and start holding him with as much accountability as all the other Presidents? Only we hold the answer to that.

    March 21, 2009 at 6:44 pm |
  7. sanjay

    The only word in the Republican Dictionary is NO!!! They like to criticize the president and his plan but they have NO Plan of there own and if they do its same old thing that does NOT work which is tax break and no regulation. They lost this election because Americans do not believe in there views and the way the Government should be run. They just need to let this man do his job and get out of the way.

    March 21, 2009 at 6:15 pm |
  8. Vicky, Nashville, Tennessee

    I think its just silly to get upset over something so small...its not like he was TRYING to insult anyone...I would imagine he was just nervous about being on the show and was just trying to make small talk and be funny...
    And in a depressing world that we're living in right now, theres nothing wrong with trying to find humor in all things. Its silly to get upset over just words when there are more pressing things in the world to be upset over.
    Just seems everyone wants something to whine about. I wish people would take all that whining and apply it to the real issues in the world, and hope they would be noticed like these silly little words were.

    March 21, 2009 at 6:15 pm |
  9. Melody Marshall

    Why do we have to take a relaxed conversation so seriousely....Does anyone just sit back and enjoy the fact that Mr. President was relaxed and just acting normal like the rest of us. I have a few disabilites, and commonly refer to myself as being retarted. Everyone needs to quit being so damn critical of every damn breathe the man takes. How many people applauded when Bush got hit with that shoe. You all need to get hit with a shoe, and quit being so damn critical of this man who has taken every stinking burden that others created, of course the creators of the "poo" don't get to have their names smeared all over the press. He had me cracking up laughing, a type of guy that you just feel relaxed with, we all need to let go of a button or two of the collar of your stiff shirts!

    March 21, 2009 at 3:53 pm |
  10. Dawn

    No kidding "words do matter"! Too many times, politicians have made racial comments only later apologize for it. They knew what they were saying before allowing racial phrases to come out of their mouth. President Obama is being lynched for his slip of the tongue and nothing seems to be done about the NY post animated comment made a month ago or so.

    What double standard garbage in this world! I do not condone what the President said...I have a mentally retarded sister who is an adult baby...literally! But as mentioned, he apologized for his statement before the show on Leno aired. Politicians of the past and current have made sensitive statements only to retract after they have been called on it...PLEASE!

    March 21, 2009 at 3:21 pm |
  11. Isabel - Brazil

    Do you know when we are about to take a vacation, the fatigue is the size of the world, and we stumbling in our own legs?

    It seems that President Obama is needing a vacation. But so fast?

    March 21, 2009 at 3:05 pm |
  12. Camilo

    When all of this is dug up and brought to the surface it menas one thing.

    Slow news week.

    March 21, 2009 at 2:42 pm |
  13. Sue Bromen

    Well-written ... duly noted. Some things I already knew about, others I didn't. It's one of those times when 2+2 doesn't equal 4, but far more ... those words impact a lot of people! Kind makes you think about that about "... sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me." Not true, is it? Words do hurt. Good job, AC.

    March 21, 2009 at 2:33 pm |
  14. toni in Virginia

    Yes, and remember that The President is not an American of African SLAVE Descent; thus, he does not know the pain of starting life as a less than embryo. When my landlord tells his kids to stop acting ghetto, he means 'like an N-word' and it hurts, man does it hurt... i know the pain of these "Children of a Lesser God" President Obama does not. We shall give him this 1st pass but never a second...

    March 21, 2009 at 1:59 pm |