I was five years old when my brother and sisters came home early from school on the day that President John Kennedy was assassinated. It’s one of my earliest and most powerful memories. The entire house became solemn and quiet as our old RCA black and white television with the aluminum foil wrapped around the antennae reported the awful news. In 1981 I learned that President Reagan had been shot when I got home from class and saw my father sitting in front of the television with tears coming down his face. I sat with him feeling disgusted and angry that someone would try to kill the President, one Democrat, one Republican, but the same sense of outrage.
The thing is, I’m one of those people who still have perhaps a naïve reverence for the President of the United States. Not that I worship him, but rather, I consider him to be worthy of a special respect and honor, regardless of his performance in office or his ideology. Even when they behave badly and by their failings don’t actually deserve it, Bill Clinton comes to mind, I still feel a bit uncomfortable when they are openly reviled in public. The way the right savaged Clinton was shameful. The left’s disrespect for George Bush was often close to treasonous, and now President Obama is receiving his share of mockery.
However, as much discomfort as I feel at the rampant disrespect for the Presidency that has dominated our culture for most of my lifetime, it has no legal remedy. We live in an imperfect Constitutional Republic with a democratic form of government. We have a Bill of Rights that doesn’t grant us rights but rather protects those God-given rights from government encroachment. The cornerstone of those rights is the freedom of speech. Our President is not a monarch, we don’t bow down to him, we are allowed in fact to despise him and to express our hatred in a variety of ways from scathing editorials, to late night comedy stand up routines and yes even rodeo clown stunts at State fairs.
Had I been in the audience at the Missouri state fair last week, I would have probably booed when the clown appeared with an Obama mask and the announcer started asking the audience if they would like to see Obama rammed by a bull. This is a perfect example of the kind of thing that I find disrespectful and harmful as it ultimately degrades our discourse. However, a simple Google search will reveal that this is far from the first example of rodeo clowns savaging Presidents. A rodeo in New Jersey of all places had done the exact same thing to then President George H. W. Bush back in 1994, going so far as allowing a bull to rip a straw dummy with a Bush mask to shreds. Similar rodeo high jinks in Alabama had targeted both the younger Bush and Bill Clinton. Apparently, the rodeo community is an equal opportunity offender.
But this morning comes news that this particular rodeo clown has been “banished for life” from performing at the Missouri State Fair and has been ordered to endure “sensitivity training.” No…a thousand times no!! It is not a crime to be rude. What makes President Obama above the common ridicule and mockery that has been the fate of every President in American history? Voices now claiming shock and horror at this rodeo clown were silent when the target was one of the Bushes. Why the sudden discovery of decorum, this new found disgust at political theatre? Of all the Presidents who have served during my life, none has had thinner skin than the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.