JEFFERSON CITY, Mo.— The Missouri State Fair on Monday permanently banned a rodeo clown who sparked national outcry after wearing a mask of President Obama.
And while the clown, Tuffy Gessling, won’t appear at again at the Missouri State Fair, that sure hasn’t hurt his popularity in some circles online.
In fact, Gessling has added more than 700 Facebook friends since his depiction of Obama getting charged by a bull went viral.
The entertainment during the bull riding contest featured a clown wearing a mask of Obama with an upside down broomstick attached to his backside. Spectators were asked if they wanted to see “Obama run down by a bull.” Many in the audience responded enthusiastically.
That enthusiasm continued on his Facebook page.
“Stand tall, never apologize!! You have LOTS of support,” one friend said.
“Standing beside you 100% in Florida…Morons!!!” another fan said.
“Keep your head high Tuffy!! The cry babies of the State Fair need to grow up,” said a third.
Some of that sentiment was also found on Twitter.
@deb.asamom: #mostatefair Rodeo clowns can only mock Bush. Liberal tolarance looms as large as their transparency.
But the act was widely criticized by Democratic and Republican officials alike.
The antics led the state’s second highest-ranking official, Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, to denounce the performance in a tweet Sunday. He said it was “disrespectful” to the president.
“We are better than this,” the Republican tweeted.
State Fair officials said the show in Sedalia was “inappropriate” and “does not reflect the opinions or standards” of the fair. “We strive to be a family friendly event and regret that Saturday’s rodeo badly missed that mark,” they said in a statement Sunday.
Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat, said in a statement on her website, “If what’s being reported is true, then it’s shameful and it’s unacceptable.”
Scott Holste, spokesman for Missouri’s Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, said Sunday in an email that Nixon “agrees that the performance was disrespectful and offensive, and does not reflect the values of Missourians or the State Fair.”
At least one member of the Missouri Rodeo Cowboy Association defended him. David Berry, who was at Saturday’s event, described the clown as a friend and said there was nothing offensive or unusual about his actions. Berry said the Obama character was meant to look like a dummy and that rodeo clowns have long performed such acts, often imitating sitting presidents.
“The joke is not that it was the president,” Berry said. “They drag out this person dressed like a dummy and all of the sudden this dummy just takes off running. That’s what’s funny.”
But other rodeo professionals said the Missouri fair stunt appeared to go too far.
“It’s not unheard of for a rodeo clown, depending on how he reads his audience, to play politics a little bit,” said Jim Bainbridge, the senior public relations coordinator at the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, based in Colorado Springs, Colo. “But this crossed a line. Clearly, when you’re suggesting that the president should be injured, it kind of gets to a level of hostility that is inappropriate.”
Perry Beam, an attendee who posted a photo of the event on Facebook, has said it had the feeling of Ku Klux Klan rally. He said that, at one point, another clown ran up to the one wearing the Obama mask and played with the lips on the mask.
The rodeo’s announcer—whom some media initially identified as making the comments about Obama—sought Monday to distance himself from the clown’s actions.
Announcer Mark Ficken said through an attorney that the clown was wearing a live microphone and had given the announcer no advance notice about the skit. Ficken is president of the Missouri Rodeo Cowboy Association and also is superintendent of the Boonville School District.
“He was as surprised as anyone with the appearance of an Obama-masked rodeo clown,” said Ficken’s attorney, Albert Watkins of St. Louis.
Watkins said Ficken’s only comment during the event was to say, “Watch out for that bull Obama!” Watkins said that was meant as a warning for the clown’s safety.
Fair Marketing Director Tammie Nichols said the rodeo clown was hired by Missouri Rodeo Cowboy Association and that fair officials did not know he was going to mock Obama.
“We’ve worked with this company for many, many, many years. We have a longstanding history with them and never had any trouble,” Nichols said.
The association did not respond to an email request for an interview Monday and had removed the names of its officers from its website. A statement on the site said the association’s directors are “dealing with the situation firmly and quickly as this type of behavior will not be tolerated. “
Most of the Missouri State Fair’s roughly $4.5 million budget comes from fees charged to attendees and vendors, but it receives about $558,000 from tax revenues, according to the state budget office.
Missouri House Democrats have suggested the Republican-led chamber should form a special committee to investigate the incident and determine whether to continue providing tax dollars to the fair.
State Rep. Steve Webb, chairman of the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus, said Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon should cancel the governor’s annual ham breakfast scheduled for Thursday at the fairgrounds. But Nixon spokesman Scott Holste said the governor did not plan to cancel the breakfast because of the “deplorable actions that took place during this one event.”