SEDALIA, Mo. — As some people at the Missouri State Fair see it, the rodeo incident last weekend in which a ringleader taunted a clown wearing a mask of President Obama and played with his lips as a bull charged after him was neither racist nor disrespectful.
It was a joke, they said, overblown by a news media that’s hypersensitive to any possible slight against the nation’s first black president. They said the hooting and hollering from the crowd that night was because of a fundamental dislike of the president.
“I’ve got no respect for him,” said Virgil Henke, 65, a livestock farmer who explained his distaste for Obama with several falsehoods about his background: “Why, he’s destroyed this country. How much freedom have we lost? I don’t care whether it’s a black man in office, but we have to have a true-blooded American. I think he is Muslim and trying to destroy the country, catering to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.”
The rodeo incident and the clown at the center of it have become the latest illustration of racial divisions that continue to surface nearly five years into Obama’s presidency.
A three-minute amateur video of the rodeo act was picked up by news outlets worldwide. Democratic and Republican elected officials in Missouri quickly condemned the incident, saying it was offensive and inappropriate at a taxpayer-funded event with children in attendance. Asked about it Wednesday, a White House spokesman said that it was not one of Missouri’s “finer moments.”
But there has also been a backlash on the right, with conservative radio talk show hosts and writers dismissing the act as a joke no different from jabs aimed at other presidents. Moreover, they said, the president’s supporters ought to learn how to take a joke rather than seeing everything as racially motivated. Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Tex.), who tweeted that liberals are “thin-skinned and totalitarian,” has invited the clown to perform at rodeos in Texas.
There is a long history of mocking politicians at rodeos, and clowns have donned masks of other presidents as part of their acts. But James Staab, a political science professor at the University of Central Missouri, said last week’s incident “goes beyond the pale — they’re talking about physical injury and racial stereotypes.”
Whether the scene at the state fair was meant merely as mockery or something more sinister, there was no room for nuance among a dozen fairgoers interviewed Wednesday. There was near universal agreement that the incident was all in good fun, and disapproval of the president crossed into a deep, personal hatred, often tinted in racial terms.
“I was raised to think the blacks were bad; I’m not gonna lie. We lived on one side of the tracks, and they lived on the other,” said Margaret Abercrombie, 68, who is white and grew up along the Mississippi River in Sikeston, Mo.
Abercrombie said she voted twice for Obama but didn’t find anything wrong with the rodeo act. As she rode her motorized wheelchair to the grandstands at the rodeo arena, which on this day hosted tractor pull races, Abercrombie said the anti-Obama sentiments she encounters are based on race.
“You hear the farmers here, they just don’t like him because he’s black,” Abercrombie said. Pointing across the fairgrounds to the cattle barns, she added, “I’m surprised they ain’t got a cow over there named Obama.”
The Wednesday crowd at the fair, which lasts 11 days in remote Sedalia, was overwhelmingly white. Some vendors played right-wing talk radio from boom boxes at their tents. One vendor sold “rebel pride” hats emblazoned with Confederate flags for $8 each. Another, who would only be identified as “Dennis the Sticker Dude” because he was afraid of government retaliation, hawked car decal stickers featuring a cartoon boy urinating on Obama.
Henke hesitated at first to provide his name, fearing that if he publicly criticized Obama the Internal Revenue Service would “be up my [backside] and at my door.”
Henke said he sometimes surfs the Internet for Web sites making fun of Obama and his family. For instance, he said, one site he looks at compares “Obama’s wife to a monkey — they have the same expression. The media makes it all hate. I don’t hate a black person. It’s just funny.”
At the rodeo here last Saturday night, a clown wearing an Obama mask stood on the arena’s dirt floor, propped up like a straw man with the appearance that a broom stick was going up his backside. A second clown called him “ya big goober.” Before letting the bull loose to charge at the clown with the Obama mask, the second clown provided live narration over the loudspeakers:
“Obama, they’re coming for you this time.”
“He’s going to getcha, getcha, getcha.”
“Yahoo! We’re gonna smoke Obama.”
In the stands, Perry Beam was so sickened by the scene he began recording it.
“It reminded me of a [Ku Klux] Klan rally,” Beam said. “It had that hateful aspect. It was the way they cheered, the anger in it. . . . You can disagree with a government policy, but that doesn’t prompt you to put a stick up his [backside] and incite the crowd to say how many of you want to see him be trampled by a bull. To wish that on somebody is hateful.”
Beam’s video led Missouri’s elected officials to strongly condemn the act. Mark Ficken, the rodeo announcer, resigned as president of the Missouri Rodeo Cowboy Association — although Ficken’s lawyer, Albert Watkins, said it was actually the ringleader clown, Tuffy Gessling, who made the inflammatory remarks.
“Sort of like Madonna, he wears a little headset with a live microphone,” Watkins said of Gessling. “What was funny and cute morphed into an off-color and inappropriate series of comments that basically everybody who has a room temperature IQ and above will agree were inappropriate and racist.”
Missouri State Fair officials permanently banned Gessling from future performances. On Wednesday, an apology was issued on a Twitter account that appeared to be from Gessling, saying, “Thank you to the folks that are in support of what I did, and to those I have offended I am sorry I never ment [sic] any harm.”
Gessling could not be reached for comment, but one of his cousins, Dennis Gessling, defended him in an interview. “They’re just blowing it way out of proportion — the mainstream media, the leftists, you name it,” he said. “He doesn’t mean any disrespect. . . . He is a comedian for the rodeo, and he was there to entertain the crowd. It is no different than a Jay Leno, a Jimmy Fallon, a Conan O’Brien.”
On Facebook, fans began a support group for Gessling. It had more than 60,000 “likes” by late Thursday. One organizer posted that Gessling is grateful for the support and is trying to arrange some public appearances.
The incident has been a flash point for Obama’s supporters as well. Ficken, who is superintendent of the nearby Boonville School District, has received several threats, some extremely violent and personal, his lawyer said.
To Beam, the racist element of the rodeo act was obvious. “If you’re a white man in a black mask in a former slaveholding state with a broom lodged in your rectum and you’re playing with your lips, you will be confused with a racist,” Beam said. “Had I been black, I would’ve been scared for my life.”
Kenneth Robinson, 58, a hospital clerical worker, was among the many fairgoers who leapt to Gessling’s defense.
“It was just a guy making fun of the president, like everybody else does,” Robinson said. “Whether he’s black, white, green or purple, he’s the president, and he’s got to know when he goes in that position people are gonna make fun of him.”
Bernadette Brock, 67, who was square-dancing at the fair, said the rodeo incident was nothing compared with anti-Obama displays at lower-profile events.
“Honey,” Brock said, “if you had been in some of our counties down here, this was mild.”