Expect a kinder, gentler Missouri State Fair from here on out.
This week, the Missouri State Fair Commission ordered that officials and contractors hired by the state’s rodeo association -- which would include cowboys and clowns -- complete sensitivity training before they are allowed to perform at the state fair again.
What could prompt such a thing? The jeers of a clown.
In a provocative bit of satire that went viral, a rodeo clown in Sedalia put a broomstick up his pants, donned a Barack Obama mask and asked the crowd whether it wanted to see a bull run over the president.
The undoubtedly conservative-leaning crowd, one observer noted later, “went wild” -- and you could say the same for high-ranking state officials, who, in a notable moment of bipartisanship in the Show-Me State, denounced the clown.
(Let’s just say those words again: The state’s highest-powered officials denounced a clown.)
In fact, the clown, identified by rodeo officials as Tuffy Gessling, received a lifetime ban from performing again at the fair, which receives taxpayer funding.
Gessling was plenty sorry too, according to a post to his Facebook page captured by a local journalist: “I am sorry, I never ment to offend anyone I ment no disrespect to anyone for the joke or jokes I may have said at the rodeo, once agian i never ment to offend or hurt anyone’s feelings.” (The post was later deleted or made private.)
The aftershocks rippled beyond Gessling, as an attorney for the rodeo association’s president, Mark Ficken, said Ficken resigned from the association because it wouldn’t ban Gessling from its ranks; the Kansas City Star reported that Ficken, who is also superintendent of the Boonville School District, is being investigated by the school for any possible wrongdoing in the rodeo event.
There was a bit of cognitive dissonance in the reaction to the whole affair, though; some commentators noted that the state’s Legislature has long had a contentious attitude toward the Obama administration, with some conservative legislators doubting the president’s citizenship and at least one calling him “a complete menace to our civilization.”
The problem wasn’t just the clown, some observers argued.
“It wasn’t just that the rodeo clown felt empowered to ridicule the president of the United States with a stunt” that “conjures the worst aspects of a 19th Century minstrel show,” wrote Kansas City Star columnist Barb Shelly. “It was that the crowd loved it. And no one in charge felt compelled to stop it.”
The incident did have its defenders.
On Monday, conservative radio personality Rush Limbaugh connected the rodeo jape with Obama’s appearance Jay Leno’s “The Tonight Show” last week. “When the president of the United States more often than not connects with the American people on late-night comedy shows, what else can happen other than the diminishing of the office?” Limbaugh asked.
A Facebook page set up to support Gessling has accumulated more than 31,000 likes as of Wednesday. “I been going to rodeos since JKF was I’m office,” wrote one commenter, whose message garnered 230 likes. “Rodeo clowns have made fun of presidents , mayors, governors, police chiefs, undertakers, actors, cowboys and each other until the great racist O came along! I am sick to death of him and his CHANGE!”
Still, at least when it comes to clowns at the fair, they will have to have their acts preapproved.