Part 1—Escape from the Klan: Tuffy Gessling is, or was, a rodeo clown.
Let’s make sure we understand what we mean by that statement.
We don’t mean that Tuffy Gessling is like a rodeo clown. We aren’t using the term metaphorically, as a type of insult, the way it’s often employed.
At some point, “rodeo clown” became a generic insult, a rude suggestion that some person isn’t enormously bright. When used in this insulting way, the term functions like “itinerant carnival worker,” or perhaps like “cable news host.”
In 2007, John Mellencamp included the song, Rodeo Clown, on his new album, Freedom’s Road. In the New York Times, Alan Light described the song as “a harsh attack on President Bush and the Iraq war.”
In Light’s critical judgment, Mellencamp wasn’t saying that Bush was an actual rodeo clown. He was saying that Bush was like a rodeo clown—that he wasn’t a serious person.
By way of contrast, Tuffy Gessling is, or was, an actual rodeo clown. In real life, without metaphorics!
At present, Gessling may even be our nation’s most famous rodeo clown. (In the past week, one group which has been formed to defend him has upgraded his status to “professional rodeo entertainer.” That’s why we say he possibly was a rodeo clown.) Last Friday morning, Gessling even reached the front page of the Washington Post, the subject of a lengthy news report by Philip Rucker.
Rucker’s journalism was a bit clownish, if we might employ a metaphor we’ve often used in the past. Here’s the background:
Six nights before, on a Saturday night, Gessling had performed at the Missouri State Fair in Sedalia, Missouri. There is no tape of his full performance, although a major hubbub ensued concerning its contents and its intent.
The hubbub was based on the reactions of one fair-goer, Perry Beam, who comes from a mixed family. Last Monday night, Beam told Lawrence O’Donnell about the horror he felt at the state fair’s rodeo show, which he attended with his wife and a Taiwanese exchange student.
Perry Beam held little back when he spoke with Lawrence O’Donnell. In this exchange, Beam, who may a bit excitable, compared the rodeo event he attended to a Ku Klux Klan rally, at least so far as he has seen such events portrayed on TV.
To watch the whole segment, click here:
O’DONNELL (8/12/13): Joining me now, Perry Beam, who was at the Missouri state fair on Saturday night and posted the picture of the Obama rodeo clown that went viral. Perry, what was your feelings [sic] when you were watching that?Piano players tend to have a good “read” on the conduct of rodeo announcers. At any rate, the Klansmen let Beam and his family escape, even though the family is mixed.
BEAM: I was disgusted, Mr. O’Donnell. That kind of display doesn’t belong at a state-funded event. It was divisive. And it’s something that’s billed as family entertainment and inclusive.
I come from a mixed family. My wife is an American citizen from Taiwan. And we were there with a student from Taiwan. And the acts that were happening in the ring, they drew attention to the president’s lips. They shoved a broomstick up his bottom, for goodness sake! You can’t do that and expect everybody to be happy with it. It was in bad taste, to say the least.
O’DONNELL: You said that it actually felt more like a KKK rally than a rodeo.
BEAM: Not that I’ve been to one. But the way they’re portrayed on television.
BEAM: The announcer got the—he got the crowd whooped up. And he was trying to wind them up. And I know what that’s all about. I’m a piano player. And I understand trying to get the crowd involved. And sometimes you go a little bit out on the edge. Next thing you know, though, the crowd’s feeding off the announcer, the announcer’s feeding off the crowd. You have got the mask in play and then you have the racist allusions. And pretty soon it’s a nasty recipe and quite frankly it made me kind of sick.
Gessler told a hair-raising tale to one of cable’s top “rodeo clowns.” At this point, though, some basic questions arise:
Is it true? Did Tuffy Gessling, a rodeo clown, behave in the manner described? Did he engage in “racist allusions” in the course of his clowning? Did he do something of a racial nature involving the lips of the Obama mask, which was worn by another clown?
There’s more! Did the announcer really get the crowd whooped or wound up in the course of the clowning? Was the scene like a Klan rally in some manner or form?
We’ll assume that Beam is a good decent person, as most people are. That said, are we sure that he has good solid judgment in matters like these? Is it possible that Beam may have gotten over-excited at the state fair that night?
Beam has produced three minutes of tape from the event in question. You can watch that entire tape at the link we've provided. But in fairness, we can’t really say that this tape comports well with Beam’s dramatic description.
Below, you see the way Beam described this event in his initial Facebook post. Assuming he was completely sincere, we’re going to ask a basic question:
Does that tape show anything like the scene Beam describes? Beam seems to be channeling Twain in this passage. Do you see or hear the conduct described when you look at that tape?
BEAM’S ORIGINAL FACEBOOK POST: Last night, Lily and I took a student from Taiwan to the rodeo at the Missouri State Fair. Just prior to the start of the bull riding event, one of the clowns came out dressed in this [photo of rodeo clown wearing Obama mask]. The announcer wanted to know if anyone would like to see Obama run down by a bull. The crowd went wild. He asked it again and again, louder each time, whipping the audience into a lather. One of the clowns ran up and started bobbling the lips on the mask and the people went crazy. Finally, a bull came close enough to him that he had to move, so he jumped up and ran away to the delight of the onlookers hooting and hollering from the stands.By Monday night, as Beam spoke with O’Donnell, this description had been improved to the point where the scene resembled a Klan event. But go ahead! Watch and listen to the videotape Beam provided!
Do you hear the crowd going wild? Do you see or hear the announcer whipping them into a lather? Do you see anyone bobbling the lips on the mask, with people going crazy?
We’re sorry, but we’ll offer a critical judgment, while acknowledging that videotape may not capture every nuance: As we watch that three minutes of tape, we see and hear nothing resembling that scene. Here’s what we do see and hear:
When the clown tells the stock joke O’Donnell played before bringing Beam out, we seem to hear the Zen-like sound of one woman laughing. The stands seem largely devoid of people.
No Klan rally seems to be in progress, not even metaphorically. There is little sign that anyone got whipped up in any way.
Nor can we say that we see or hear any “racist allusions.” It may be that such allusions occurred. But they don’t seem to occur on the tape.
Beam believes that he is part of “a mixed family.” Somehow, the Klan let him and his family escape their clutches that night.
The rest of the country wasn’t so lucky. In part due to the work of Our Own (corporate) Rodeo Clowns, our increasingly addled “liberal world” leaped into action last week.
Our leaders came firing out of the chute, not unlike that rodeo's bulls. The real bulls attempt to gore bystanders, including some who are wearing masks. Our leaders screech about racial outrages which may or may not have occurred.
Did Gessling, an actual radio clown, do something offensive or racist that night? That’s always possible, although the evidence is slim on the tape Beam has provided.
None of this kept from the Washington Post from its own type of clowning.
In response to the growing outrage, the Post rushed Rucker to Sedalia, where he seems to have stopped by the fair for a few brief moments. In his front-page report last Friday, Rucker displayed the type of “journalism” we have derided as “clowning” for the past fifteen years.
How did Rucker assess the unfolding story? Here’s how:
In his report, the indefatigable journalist revealed that he had interviewed the twelve [sic] fairgoers. None of these people seem to have seen the performance in question.
Inevitably, Rucker also interviewed a local professor. As with the fairgoers, we see no claim that this professor saw the performance in question.
That rarely stops the nation’s professors, at least the ones who end up getting quoted. Rucker begins this passage which follows with a somewhat strange admission:
RUCKER (8/16/13): There is a long history of mocking politicians at rodeos, and clowns have donned masks of other presidents as part of their acts. But James Staab, a political science professor at the University of Central Missouri, said last week’s incident “goes beyond the pale—they’re talking about physical injury and racial stereotypes.”Question:
Whether the scene at the state fair was meant merely as mockery or something more sinister, there was no room for nuance among a dozen fairgoers interviewed Wednesday. There was near universal agreement that the incident was all in good fun, and disapproval of the president crossed into a deep, personal hatred, often tinted in racial terms.
If “there is a long history of mocking politicians at rodeos,” with clowns donning masks of other presidents, why is everyone so upset about what Gessler did? Plainly, the answer involves the claims about “racist allusions” and “racial stereotypes.”
This leads us to Rucker’s imitation of “reporting,” which has the feel of the clown, the fool or perhaps even the harlequin or the barker.
In his report, Rucker quotes four of the twelve people he took the time to interview. He managed to come up with one “race man,” but there is no sign that any of these people actually saw the performance at issue.
Nor does Rucker make any attempt to verify, question or challenge the judgments of the professor. What does the professor mean when he says “they” were “talking about racial stereotypes” during the rodeo clowning?
Within the boundaries of the report, the journalist doesn’t ask, and the professor doesn’t say. This is the way the Washington Post has performed such work for decades.
For what it’s worth, Rucker seems to be right about that “long history” of rodeo clowning. Taking a quick look through Nexis, we find reports of other performances which have involved well-known American presidents.
Last week, Rush Limbaugh leaped to recall the rodeo clowns who performed the same sort of act involving President Bush the elder. And sure enough! Much as Rucker reported, the Philadelphia Inquirer had described that earlier conduct at a New Jersey rodeo.
The dummy of President Bush had “a broomstick shoved up his bottom” too, as was done with the dummy of Obama. That's because you're supposed to think that the figure in the ring is an actual dummy. This sets up the hilarity of the stock joke in which the “dummy” runs away as a bull approaches:
CAMPBELL (8/19/94): The bull came out bucking. The rider flopped from side to side and the bullfighters held back, letting the bull make his moves until the rider dropped off. Licciardello crouched in a heavily padded barrel, a human target should the bull decide to charge. Hawkins waited near the barrel, holding his big inner tube. A dummy with a George Bush mask stood beside the clown, propped up by a broomstick.President Bush is said to be white. The same is true of President Clinton, who was exposed to similar clowning in 2002.
Jalapeno [the bull] dispatched his rider before the mandatory eight seconds. Now he stood tall, his head up, looking for something to charge.
T.J. Hawkins rolled out the big inner tube, and the bull lowered his head, shot forward and launched into the tube, sending it bounding down the center of the arena. The crowd cheered. Then the bull saw the George Bush dummy.
He tore into it, sending the rubber mask flying halfway across the sand as he turned toward the fence, sending cowboys scrambling up the fence rails, hooking one with his horn and tossing him off the fence.
In that year, the Durham Independent Weekly described a local rodeo where the clowns played this same game, with a Clinton mask propped on an actual dummy. (“After throwing its rider, one bull gores a dummy that’s wearing a Bill Clinton facemask.”)
In 2008, the San Antonio News Express described similar conduct by Leon Coffee, “a rodeo clown who said through a painted smile that he cast his first vote for Harry S. Truman” and “suggested he'll vote for the Democrat in the upcoming election because that's who he believes has the best chance to address the problems of ordinary folks.” Despite these heretical views, the News Express reported that Coffee “uses a [Hillary] Clinton mask as part of his act when he's out dodging bulls.”
How wayward can our rodeo clowns actually get on occasion? In July 2008, the Abilene Report News reported that rodeo clown Raymond Griffin “poked fun at” Governor Rick Perry at the Texas Cowboy Reunion rodeo, with Perry right there in attendance! No Perry dummy was reported, but the joke the newspaper quoted carried that same basic message.
No, the joke wasn’t hugely funny. Did we say that Griffin’s a rodeo clown?
Did Tuffy Gessling commit a racial or racist act at the fair? Like you, we weren’t present that night. Also, everything’s possible!
It’s possible that Gessling did something racial or racist in the course of his less than hilarious act, which played to the sounds of one woman laughing. But as we watched Our Own Rodeo Clowns perform their tricks on The One Liberal Channel, we almost thought we see disrespect aimed at American’s racial martyrs. We also thought we saw the start of an answer to our question from last week:
Why don’t the hosts on The One True Channel ever seem to challenge the plutocrats who are looting the rest of the country? All week long, we’ll explore that question, and our answer will involve a long and noxious American tradition:
Race has long been used in this country to distract average people from their basic financial interests. Is something like that now taking place on The One True Channel?
Tomorrow: “Rodeo clowns” sound off!