The bipartisan tradition of dissing presidents

    In just a few purportedly pithy paragraphs – while marshalling brain cells for a morning radio show – I want to flag the story about the Texas congressman and the Obama-masked rodeo clown.

    This is ostensibly about Republican Steve Stockman’s championing of the clown who ran afoul of the Missouri Rodeo Cowboy Association. But this is really about rank hypocrisy on the issue of free speech.


    As you may know already, Rodeo Clowngate has dominated this week’s debased political dialogue. The clown donned an Obama mask last Saturday night, during a bull riding contest at the Missouri State Fair, and the guy at the microphone asked the crowd if it wanted to see “Obama run down by a bull.” The crowd yelled its assent. The guy at the mic yelled, “We’re gonna smoke Obama, man!” That’s the gist of the incident,; naturally, it went viral. The president’s supporters got mad, and rodeo officials got embarrassed – pledging, via an apology, that such a thing would never happen again at a Missouri rodeo.

    Enter Stockman. (He’s one of the many Texas loose cannons, not to be confused with the Republican colleague who says that fetuses masturbate.) Stockman has invited the Obama-masked clown to perform at a fair in his congressional district, as a rebuke to Obama’s defenders: “They want to crush dissent by isolating and polarizing anyone who questions Obama….The idea is to create a state of fear and make people afraid to trivialize Obama.”

    More importantly, he said this: “Texans value speech, even if it’s speech they don’t agree with….Texans value free and open political speech.”

    Oh really? Tell that to the Dixie Chicks.

    During a concert on March 10, 2003, Natalie Manes of the Chicks dared to criticize the impending Iraq war. She took the mic and said, “We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.” She and her bandmates soon learned that their fellow Texans, and Bush fans generally, did not value “free and open political speech.” Their fellow Texans, and Bush fans generally, promptly sought to ruin the band.

    Their CDs were torched, their songs were purged from radio station playlists, and their lives were threatened. I remember talking by phone with Jeff Garrison, a program manager at a Houston country western station, and he said, “They’re off the air. If you say something like that (about a president), you make your own bed.”

    You see the problem. Partisans love free speech only when derisive speech is aimed at a president whom they hate; partisans hate free speech when derisive speech is aimed at a president whom they love. And both sides play this game. Stockman and his crowd love the clown, but hated the Chicks. Obama fans hate the clown, but loved the Chicks – as well as the other musicians who dissed Bush back in the day (including Eddie Vedder, who used to hang a Bush mask on his microphone).

    Can all partisans, on the left as well as the right, please take a chill pill? Those free speech values go both ways. If the Dixie Chicks want to say they’re ashamed of Bush, fine. And if the rodeo clown and the rodeo announcer want to mock Obama, fine. It’s all in the spirit of our brutish American tradition. Theodore Roosevelt, who got his share of mockery, said it best more than a century ago:

    “To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.”


    As referenced above, I guest-gigged on WHYY-FM’s Radio Times for an hour today, with the estimable Robert Costa, Washington editor of National Review. It’s archived here.


    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1


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