The Missouri State Fair has banned for life a rodeo clown who wore a Barack Obama mask during a bull-riding competition and suggested that “Obama” might be run down by an angry bull. “Hey, I know I’m a clown,” the still-unidentified performer said. “He [Obama] is just running around acting like one. Doesn’t know he is one.” Many in the audience were amused; at least some were offended. The event was captured on home video, which quickly made the rounds of news reports.
In a press release Monday, the State Fair said, “the statements and actions Saturday night were inappropriate and not in keeping with the Fair’s standards. The Missouri State Fair apologizes for the unconscionable stunt.” The organization said it had decided “to permanently ban this rodeo clown from ever participating or performing at the Missouri State Fair again.”
The controversy over the incident seemed to have two parts. One was outrage in some quarters over the obvious disrespect and ridicule directed at the president. The other was outrage over the suggestion of violence toward Obama — in the form of an encounter with the bull — that was the premise of the act. This is the most complete video of the incident available; you can watch it to judge for yourself.
Of course the Missouri State Fair can do what it wants, but the lifetime ban seems excessive. Any president comes in for a fair amount of public mockery, and what happened at the State Fair does not seem worse than the mockery of the president that occurred — without consequences like lifetime bans — during George W. Bush’s years in the White House. It’s not necessary to recite all the insults, threats, and other offenses directed at Bush during his presidency; if you were awake during those years, you know there were a lot of them. But perhaps it would be useful to list a few, and ask whether they resulted in punishment and professional exile for those involved.
As far as disrespect and ridicule are concerned, in 2007, TV newswoman Erin Burnett, who then worked for MSNBC, repeatedly referred to Bush as a “monkey” during a report on an economic summit. Burnett, who later apologized, was not banned from television; she is now a prime-time anchor on CNN.
Burnett was not alone; depictions of Bush as a chimpanzee, in particular, were common on the Internet during those years. And not unheard of on television. In October 2009, after Bush left office HBO’s Bill Maher said on his program “Real Time,” that, “Barack Obama, an actual college professor, replaced George Bush, an actual chimp.” Maher was not banned from HBO; he is still the host of the program.
In August, 2007, North Dakota Democratic Rep. Earl Pomeroy was caught on video calling Bush a “clown.” Pomeroy later apologized, but he was not banned from office. Instead, he was re-elected for a ninth term in the House in 2008. He did lose in the Republican wave of 2010, but is now a lobbyist in Washington.
As far as the use of violent imagery and the president is concerned, the Bush years saw imagery much more serious than a bump from a bull. For example, the 2006 film “Death of a President” was a faux-documentary that told the story of a fictional Bush assassination, including a graphic depiction of the Bush character being shot in the chest. After its premiere at the Toronto film festival, where it won the International Critics Prize, “Death of a President” was handled by a major American distributor, Newmarket Films, and was reviewed, seriously and on its own terms, by the Washington Post, New York Times and other major press outlets. The film’s makers were not banned for life from the movie industry or anything else; the director has since made several films that have shown at festivals around the world and is now working on a documentary on David Bowie.
In the 2004 novella “Checkpoint,” author Nicholson Baker depicted a conversation between two men planning to assassinate Bush. “He’s one dead armadillo,” says one character, speaking of the president. The Washington Post was impressed by the book’s “fanciful flourishes and fierce, furious fits of anger.” Baker was not banned from anything and is still writing and being published today.
In June 2006, Alan Hevesi, then the comptroller of the state of New York, delivered a college commencement address in which he paid tribute to Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer by calling him “the man who, how do I phrase this diplomatically, who will put a bullet between the president’s eyes if he could get away with it.” Hevesi later apologized, explaining that he merely intended to praise Schumer’s courage and toughness. Hevesi was not banned from office; he was, in fact, re-elected as comptroller later in 2006. (He didn’t stay much longer, resigning when he was indicted on corruption charges.)
Going through these various incidents is not intended to suggest that the people involved should have been banned from their professions. It’s perfectly fine that Burnett and Maher and the others still have their jobs. It’s just to ask: Why should the Missouri rodeo clown be banned for life? Couldn’t his employers have demanded an apology instead?