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Jerry Lewis kicked off his 27th annual muscular dystrophy telethon amid a controversy over its so-called "pity" approach to fund-raising that reached all the way to the White House.

"We've had some negatives and we've had some positives," Lewis declared as the show opened Sunday night. "This could be the best one of all."Hours earlier, Robert Ross, head of the Muscular Dystrophy Association, released a letter to President Bush that rebuked a federal official who criticized the show for using tragic stories to raise money.

Evan Kemp, chairman of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, said Friday that "emotions can be turned on without pity stories."

"There is a fine line between compassion and pity. You know it in the way you're treated," said Kemp, who has a form of muscular dystrophy.

Ross complained Kemp ignored Bush's request to stop criticizing the telethon.

"Evan Kemp's continued disregard for your express wish that he cease his criticism of our Labor Day telethon . . . is not only grievously damaging to the association . . . but represents in a very real sense an outright rebuke of your authority," Ross said.