'Nothing Racist' Implied In 'Obama' Act, Says Rodeo Clown
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish. Controversy at the Missouri State Fair. Last Saturday, a rodeo clown donned a mask of President Barack Obama during a bull-riding competition. The crowd cheered and applauded. Video of the event was posted to a local political website and has since gone viral. The event's sponsors and organizers have been fielding criticism ever since.
For the latest on this story, we're joined now by Dave Helling. He's been covering this for the Kansas City Star. Dave, welcome to the program.
DAVE HELLING: Good afternoon.
CORNISH: So we just heard a bit of tape from the event, from the announcer there, but describe the scene. What happened that night?
HELLING: Well, you heard the voice of a rodeo clown named Tuffy Gessling, who was sort of the informal MC of this rodeo event. And what actually happened is that a so-far-unidentified rodeo clown put on a Barack Obama mask, a cowboy hat, and went to the center of the rodeo ring. And then the announcer made some comments about President Obama and suggested that maybe one of the bulls in the rodeo might run at the Obama figure.
And then at some point, a bull came out, ran toward the Obama figure - again, this is according to witnesses, people who were there. He runs away, the crowd applauds, and that was the entertainment at the fair.
CORNISH: And not such a big deal at the time but once the story hits the Internet and goes viral, there's this huge kind of backlash, right, and criticism for the event. What has been the response by the Missouri State Fair?
HELLING: Well, as you suggest, the reaction really from both sides has been extraordinary. Monday morning, the Missouri State Fair board met and ratified a couple of decisions by its director. One of them was to ban the announcer clown, the Tuffy Gessling, from ever participating in any events at the fair ever again. He was permanently banned.
And then, the board also voted to require the sponsoring organization, a group called the Missouri Rodeo Cowboy Association, to provide proof of sensitivity training for its members and for subcontractors before they could hold a rodeo at the fair again.
CORNISH: Tell us more about the reaction from people in Missouri. What are people saying on the street?
HELLING: Well, Audie, as you might imagine, there are fairly passionate views on both sides. There are lots of people in Missouri who found the skit racially offensive. The model was not, you know, in black face or anything but did have an Obama-like mask. And there were lots of voices Sunday and Monday who suggested that the combination of that, you know, fact with the announcer's voice, who continually urged the crowd to sort of get whipped up against the president, that, in their view, was over the top and offensive and potentially a difficulty for the state.
But then, you heard the other side who said, look, this thing happens all the time at state fairs and at rodeos and that there was no racial overtone at all, as far as they could see, from the incident.
CORNISH: When people have defended this saying, essentially, that political figures are obviously the target of ridicule all the time, even at the rodeo, when you actually looked back at past years, did you find that?
HELLING: Not necessarily at the state fair. And in fact, a lot of people who called me said, well, this happens all the time. And I asked them, well, has it ever happened at the Missouri State Fair before? And there were no real examples of that. But I have had people tell me that, yes, there have been George Bush figures and Bill Clinton figures in past years.
But supporters also make a broader point that, you know, making fun of public officials isn't just limited to the rodeo, you know, in movies, in television, in skits and plays and that this was no different from that. Again, I think both sides sort of see this incident through the prism of their own political views and they are strongly held, believe me.
I mean, my email box and phone messages filled up rather quickly after these stories ran.
CORNISH: That's Kansas City Star reporter Dave Helling. He was talking about the controversy at last Saturday's Missouri State Fair when a rodeo clown wore a mask of President Barack Obama. Dave, thank you.
HELLING: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.