In Defense of Tuffy Gessling, the "Obama Rodeo Clown"

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Aug. 15 2013 9:48 AM

In Defense of Tuffy Gessling, the "Obama Rodeo Clown"

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Is the mockery of President Obama at a state fiar over the weekend any worse than what George W. Bush routinely faced?

Photo by Amanda Edwards/Getty Images

If you read a headline that starts with "Congressman" and ends with something stupid, odds are it's about Rep. Steve Stockman. The one-term victor of the 1994 Republican Revolution returned to Congress this year and started adding celebrity hooks and hype to every conservative cause du jour. It was Stockman who brought Ted Nugent to the State of the Union, where he could side-eye the president as he discussed gun laws; it's Stockman who now wants Tuffy Gessling, the rodeo clown who wore an Obama mask at the Missouri State Fair, to perform in Washington. Let Stockman explain.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

Disagreeing with speech is one thing. Banning it and ordering citizens into reeducation classes for mocking a liberal leader is another. Liberals have targeted this man for personal destruction to create a climate of fear.
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But Stockman's not quite wrong! Hyperbolic, as usual, but sort of meandering toward a point. Over the weekend Gessling participated in a skit that mocked the president in pretty metaphorically obvious ways.

Gessling was punished by being banned for life from the state fair. The president of the Missouri Rodeo Cowboy Association resigned, because Gessling wasn't immediately banned from his organization.

This is exactly the wrong way to handle things, and we should wince at the precedent. Barack Obama isn't merely a "liberal leader," as Stockman calls him. If he were—if the bull had tossed Michael Moore or something—Gessling surely wouldn't have been banned. Barack Obama is the president of the United States, and in that capacity people have the right—nay, duty—to make fun of him.

That was the rule when George W. Bush was president, wasn't it? Eddie Vedder would occasionally sing Pearl Jam's "Bush Leaguer" then impale a Bush mask on his microphone stand. Protesters at anti-Iraq War rallies would hold signs that put Bush in all sorts of compromising or murderous positions. In 2006 conservatives raged at a faux documentary about Bush's assassination, and Rush Limbaugh speculated that Democrats were so deranged that they'd "demand that elected politicians actually endorse the movie."

They didn't, obviously, but nobody lost their jobs. Criticism of the commander-in-chief is almost always in bounds; when it isn't, as when former New York State Comptroller Alan Hevesi made a joke about Chuck Schumer shooting Bush "between the eyes," we typically let the offender apologize and move on.

So why not let Tuffy Gessling and the rodeo announcers just apologize? Was the Obama gag so much worse than any of the Bush parodies? Well, the context was embarrassing, and that's probably why the state fair and local politicians are coming down so hard. The gag went off the rails when the announcer yelled "He's gonna getcher getcher getcher!" in the sort of voice usually reserved for people violating a naked Ned Beatty. It made Missourians look like yahoos.

Banning Gessling doesn't fix that. It looks like corporal punishment for free speech, and it gives Obama-haters proof that they can't criticize Dear Leader without the state coming down on him. It turns a dumb-but-legal political joke into a moment of martyrdom. "Tuffy's big sin," according to a Facebook page created to defend him, is that "he dared to tell [a] joke using Obama."

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.