You Can't Say That on TV, Mr. President

By Katie Van Loo 3-20-2009

I woke up this morning to Donnie Simpson's voice (yes, my alarm clock is tuned into morning hip-hop jams on 95.5) discussing Barack Obama. Over the last several months, hearing Obama's name in the morning has been anything but a rare occasion. But what shocked me out of my sleepy stupor much quicker than usual was the clip of Obama's interview on Leno last night. From President Obama's mouth:

"I bowled a 129 .... It's like -- it was like the Special Olympics, or something."

That is the presidential equivalent of saying, "That's retarded." Well, isn't this fitting in light of Eugene Cho's blog post yesterday? Calling out Miley Cyrus and the one Jonas Brother for racist photo poses is one thing, but what do you do when it is the president of the United States making an offhand joke about the Special Olympics? And not just any president, but a recently-elected and much-beloved president who is also publicly heralded as evidence of the progress our country has made toward equality.

I think Donnie Simpson provided a solid analysis of the situation. Despite the multiple e-mails he'd received that morning dismissing the comment and relieving the president of any bad intent, Simpson made clear that the comment was offensive and should not have been said. What Simpson was saying is that President Obama was wrong. Take a moment and let that sink in.

And yet, he went on to say that he understands there are times in comedy where people make jokes about certain groups. Some people find those jokes funny and others do not (and you can argue whether this is right or wrong), but that is the nature of comedy. Simpson made clear, however, that the president is not a comedian. While the lightheartedness of the interview did much to show the president in a human light (we all joke around, we all create March Madness brackets, and we all slip up with what we say), Barack Obama holds significant influence over the American people and must always be aware of his responsibility.

Simpson's final words before I hit the snooze button highlighted the importance of Obama's response to the event. Before the interview even aired, Obama called the director of the Special Olympics from Air Force One to apologize profusely about his statement. He conveyed his regret over his comment and his deep respect for the Special Olympics. The president also offered to fly Special Olympics participants to the White House for a visit. According to TimesOnline, the president recognized the weight of his words in the instant he said them.

Of course, Barack Obama has swarms of people paid to analyze his every word and action, righting wrongs before they even happen. But, for once, I care little about who told him to do what. As president, Obama sets an example. It's clear here that his example was to educate yourself so you know when something is offensive, to admit when you are wrong, to apologize, and to seek reconciliation. As a Korean-American woman, I'm offended by this recent trend of slitted-eye photo poses, but I'd feel a bit more at ease if people started to follow the president's lead.

Everyone's wrong sometimes and everyone offends sometimes. Know when you've done it. Say that you're wrong. That's what forgiveness and grace are for. Then do something to build that relationship, that bond, rather than let your pride and self-righteousness dig you into an insensitive hole.

And let's not forget to give credit where credit is due: Thanks, Donnie Simpson, for being an example of how to honestly critique and hold accountable those around us, even when it's the president of the United States.

Katie Van Loo, a former Sojourners intern, lives in Washington, D.C.

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