Rodeo fans and conservatives defend skit mocking Obama

Rodeo fans and conservatives by the thousands rode to the defense of a rodeo clown Tuesday, less than 72 hours after he took part in a controversial weekend skit involving a masked figure of President Barack Obama.

But the passionate support did not overcome the lingering anger over the Saturday skit at the Missouri State Fair.

The president of the group that organized the rodeo — Mark Ficken — resigned Tuesday, blaming the group’s failure to sanction the clown for his behavior.

It marked a third straight day of heated disagreement over the implications of the rodeo stunt.

“I think it’s a crock,” said rodeo trainer Lyle Sankey of Branson, referring to criticism of the skit. “Do you see as much publicity when they make fun of any conservatives? That doesn’t make the news.”

The clown announcing the event was identified as Tuffy Gessling, a veteran of state and local rodeo events.

By Tuesday evening, a Facebook page called “Support Tuffy Gessling, Professional Rodeo Entertainer” had registered more than 20,000 “likes.” Most of the comments expressed outrage at criticism of the entertainer.

Some suggested other rodeo clowns — or fair attendees — wear Obama masks at future events.

The Star could not reach Gessling for comment Tuesday. A cousin told The Associated Press that Gessling thought the skit was a joke.

In an earlier interview, posted on the website of the student newspaper at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg, Gessling said the use of an Obama-masked clown at the rodeo was not meant as a racial or political statement.

“Comedians all over the country have used political figures to make fun of current events,” Gessling told digitalBURG. “I never tried to be a racist or anything like that. I love all people no matter their background. I live to make people laugh.”

Gessling was the primary announcer during the skit, in which spectators were led to believe that an Obama-masked stuffed dummy was standing in the middle of the ring, threatened by rodeo bulls.

Instead, the dummy was an actual person wearing the Obama mask. When a bull approached the figure, he escaped, surprising the audience.

Gessling said that’s the point of the skit. “The dummy ... comes alive and runs away,” he said.

The identity of the clown actually wearing the Obama mask has not been made public.

Witnesses said Gessling, who had a microphone, worked aggressively during the skit to energize the audience by criticizing Obama.

“I know I’m a clown,” he says in one video of the stunt. “He just runs around like one, doesn’t know he is one.”

Sankey said rodeo clowns like Gessling are expected to entertain spectators between rodeo events.

“Clowns refer to the comedy,” he said. “They fill in the slow spots at the event, they fill in the gaps, they try to keep the crowd engaged.”

Lampooning elected officials is common, he said, not just at rodeos but at other entertainment venues like television and the movies.

Officials at the Missouri Rodeo Cowboy Association, which organized the state fair rodeo, did not return several phone calls Tuesday, either to discuss Gessling’s involvement or Ficken’s resignation as the association’s president.

But Christine Berry, the group’s former secretary, said, “The whole situation’s unfortunate.” Her husband, David, an MRCA member since 1987, said skits involving presidential figures have been a feature at rodeos for decades.

The group apologized over the weekend.

The Boonville school system, where Ficken is superintendent, said it would examine his role in the Saturday rodeo.

The MRCA is registered as a nonprofit organization. In its last tax return, the group said its purpose is to “sponsor rodeo contest and events on a state wide scale and to promote the highest type of sportsmanship at such events.”

It reported raising and spending roughly $170,000 a year. Its website said it would take part in a Kansas City-area rodeo next week, although its role could not be confirmed.

In public appearances Tuesday, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said the Missouri State Fair and related events should proceed. Nixon appoints members to the state fair board, which voted Monday to permanently ban Gessling from the fair.

“The Missouri state fair is an important part of the traditions of our state,” the Democrat said, adding: “I’m not one that because somebody does something insensitive or offensive that we should back off of what’s been a long tradition.”

Several callers to The Star said Tuesday they plan to boycott the fair because of Gessling’s punishment. Others, though, said they’ll stay away from the fair because of the incident.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri’s 5th District called the weekend display “sickening” and “offensive.”

“In the end, civility begins here at home,” the Kansas City Democrat’s statement said.

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