Robert B. Simpson: Send in the clowns

August 18, 2013 

You may have seen or heard about it, the latest furor over what some see as overstepping the boundaries of good taste and others consider as the right to criticize politicians in the crudest possible way. The incident a few days ago involved a clown performing at the Missouri State Fair rodeo. He wore a President Obama mask, with oversized lips, and the crowd was asked, "Do you want to see Obama run down by a bull?" It was reported that the crowd screamed enthusiastically as the announcer continued. A second clown ran up and played with the oversized lips. The performance apparently went on for more than a few minutes.

The reactions were predictable. Some people thought it was outrageous. Others thought it was just outrageously funny. Missouri's Republican Lieutenant Governor Peter Kinder, along with a number of other Republicans, condemned the display as discourteous and disrespectful of the office of president. "We are better than this," Lieutenant Governor Kinder said.

The usual arguments have followed this incident. On one side are those who point out that all presidents are attacked and ridiculed.

Yes, says the other side, but in this case, racism clearly played a part, as it often does where President Obama is concerned.

Nothing racist about it, says the first group. People just hate his policies. Look at the way people attacked George W. Bush, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon.

As with most politically-tinged subjects, unfairness is often in the eye of the beholder. I tend to come down on the side of those who think such lampooning of the President is unseemly and disrespectful of the office.

And not just in the case of the present incumbent. I felt that the constant jokes about President George W. Bush's college grades and his supposed lack of intellect were out of line and had little or nothing to do with his policies. Attacks on President Jerry Ford for his supposed physical clumsiness and lack of mental agility were, in my opinion, 'way out of line. Especially considering that he had been a gifted athlete and was, according to people who knew him well, a considerate gentleman and smarter than a lot of the people who made fun of him. And none of this had much to do with his policies.

People made fun of Lyndon Johnson. Other people made fun of, or more often, outright raged against, Richard Nixon. It was understood that Republicans would detest the former and Democrats would despise the latter. Neither of which should result in actions that belittle the office itself.

But it appears to me that the present case is somehow different from those in the past. I know that when you introduce the word "racism," there are immediate disclaimers and objections to "playing the race card," that tiresome expression.

And I know that many people detest President Obama because he is a Democrat, or because he espouses policies they don't like, or for any number of other reasons, some well thought-out and some not. But caricatures that play up racial stereotypes that have been used to ridicule a race for generations are not political. They are racist. For that matter, so is the insistence by some upon emphasizing Obama's middle name, Hussein, every time he's identified. That's racist. That's a barely camouflaged way of saying, "Oh, yeah, folks, don't forget. He's not one of us. He's foreign and dark-skinned. Don't forget."

Yes, people made fun of Johnson's huge ears and Nixon's ski nose. But those weren't racial characteristics. You can call the sad display at the Missouri State Fair political if you wish, and I grant you that politics played a part. But I also detect the sour odor of racism.

Incidentally, the clown was banned for life from performing at the Missouri State Fair. I probably wouldn't have gone that far, were I in charge. He was not the only person who apparently had no clue as what is appropriate and what isn't. And that punishment is unlikely to change the minds of the crowds that screamed in glee.

Lieutenant Governor Kinder thinks we're better than this. I wish I thought so too.

Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."

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