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Missouri State Fair bans rodeo clown who mocked Obama

Missouri State Fair bans rodeo clown who mocked Obama

Missouri Fair clown draws criticism for Obama mask

This photo provided by Jameson Hsieh shows a clown wearing a mask intended to look like President Obama at the Missouri State Fair on Saturday, Aug. 10, 2013. The announcer asked the crowd if anyone wanted to see “Obama run down by a bull,” according to a spectator.  (AP Photo/Jameson Hsieh)

JEFFERSON CITY • Missouri State Fair officials on Monday barred a rodeo clown who mocked President Obama from ever performing at the fair again.

And the president of the Missouri Rodeo Cowboy Association, a private nonprofit group that sponsored the rodeo and employed the clown, resigned Monday after getting deluged with criticism for serving as the announcer during the performance Saturday night.

The actions came in response to a firestorm of criticism from Democrats, Republicans and others who described the performance as inappropriate, disrespectful and embarrassing. Several demanded investigations and an end to tax subsidies for the fair, held each year in Sedalia.

Videos posted online show the clown, who wore a Barack Obama mask, being chased by bulls as someone calls over the loudspeaker: “We’re gonna smoke Obama. … Obama, they’re coming for you this time.” The speaker also calls the masked Obama a “big goober,” before saying “This bull’s gonna get ya, Obama. He’s gonna get ya.”

Neither the fair nor the Rodeo Cowboy Association identified the clown.

But family members of the performer, who goes by the stage name of Tuffy Gessling, said that the general public was missing the point.

“Late night hosts, and ‘Saturday Night Live,’ bash Obama all the time — and Bill and Hillary and Bush and Reagan,” said cousin Chrissy Gessling, of Slater, Mo. “That’s exactly what he was doing.

“It’s entertainment,” she continued. “He’s supposed to make the crowd laugh, and just like those shows, he made the crowd laugh.”

Efforts to reach Tuffy Gessling late Monday were unsuccessful.

Fair officials said in a statement that the Rodeo Cowboy Association “must hold all those responsible for this offensive stunt accountable.”

The fair also said if the association is to ever sponsor a rodeo again, it must first show proof that “all officials and subcontractors ... have successfully participated in sensitivity training.”

The Rodeo Cowboy Association also condemned the incident. “The sport of rodeo is not meant to be a political platform,” the group said in a statement. “We are taking measures by training and educating our contract acts to prevent anything like this from ever happening again.”

Mark Ficken, president of the association and the announcer at the event, said he did not know about the stunt in advance and said the clown was wearing a live microphone.

Ficken, in a statement emailed Monday to the Post-Dispatch by his attorney, Albert S. Watkins of St. Louis, said his only reference to the clown was to say, “Watch out for that bull, Obama!” — which was meant only as a warning.

Watkins later confirmed that Ficken, superintendent of the Boonville R-1 School District in mid-Missouri, quit as the association’s president.

The fair’s response did little to quiet the anger of several state lawmakers who demanded investigations and threatened to cut funding for the fair, an annual event in Sedalia that receives state tax dollars.

“We’ve got to hold those responsible accountable for their actions. As far as I’m concerned, the state fair shouldn’t receive another taxpayer dollar until we can be sure it truly represents Missouri’s values,” said state Rep. Mike Colona, D-St. Louis.

“The concept of an angry bull attempting to trample a black man for the amusement of a crowd is neither entertaining nor funny and is not the type of behavior that our taxpayer-subsidized state fair should promote,” House Minority Leader Jake Hummel of St. Louis and Assistant Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty of Kansas City said in a joint statement.

Republicans also have condemned the incident.

State Rep. Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, wrote on Twitter: “I don’t agree (with) this (president) on many things. But he is deserving of respect and shouldn’t be the object of political stunts. Out of line!”

Members of Missouri’s congressional delegation also weighed in.

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., called it a “shameful” stunt.

U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, said the incident “showed an ugly face of intolerance and ignorance to the world.”

The fair receives funding from the state each year, with reported estimates ranging from $400,000 to $5 million annually.

Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat who will be at the fair Thursday for the annual Governor’s Ham Breakfast, has condemned the rodeo clown act but hasn’t called for any specific response. As governor, Nixon has authority over the state Fair Commission and the Department of Agriculture.

“The governor agrees that the performance was disrespectful and offensive, and does not reflect the values of Missourians or the state fair,” his spokesman, Scott Holste, said in an email.

In Sedalia on Monday, reaction from fairgoers was mixed.

Beth Bowman of Jefferson City said the performance was “very inappropriate.”

“No matter what side of politics you’re on, that’s not appropriate for the state fair,” she said while walking through the fair’s midway.

But Stockton resident John Rummel said the uproar, and subsequent banning of the rodeo performer, is “nonsense.” “Since when has making fun of the president been off limits?” he said.

Online reaction also was mixed.

The state fair’s official Facebook page has been inundated with comments from people across the country.

“No amount of ‘good’ publicity can save you from your appalling display of bigotry and classless racism that you found to be representative entertainment of the great state of Missouri. It was pure reprehensible and shameful bunk,” wrote James McCall Evans III of Indiana.

Meanwhile, others seemed entertained by the reports.

“Wish I had been at this rodeo! It’s hilarious!” wrote Manny M. Escam of Texas.

Perry Beam, who was among the spectators and has called attention to the act, told The Associated Press that “everybody screamed” and “just went wild” over the rodeo show.

“It was at that point I began to feel a sense of fear. It was that level of enthusiasm,” said Beam, of Higginsville, Mo.

The Associated Press and David Hunn of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

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