By ALAN GEVINSON
Legendary entertainer Bob Hope once joked, “I love to go to Washington, if only to be near my money.” His political humor, his relationship with U.S. presidents, and the interplay among the worlds of comedy, politics and civic activism are showcased in the new public exhibition “Hope for America: Performers, Politics & Pop Culture,” which opened on June 11. (The exhibition may also be viewed online at myloc.gov/exhibitions/hopeforamerica/).
Hope’s legacy was feted the night before during a special celebration featuring a musical tribute by Michael Feinstein; a film presentation produced by Hope Enterprises; and talks by Linda Hope (Bob Hope’s daughter); Sloan Gibson, president of the USO; and Librarian of Congress James H. Billington.
“Bob lampooned American political life with affection on many occasions and always ended up affirming and enriching America,” said Billington. “His legendary joke file is a particularly treasured part of the Library’s collections—some 85,000 jokes. I tell that to foreigners and I think that has more impact than any statement you make about America.”
“Hope for America” draws primarily from personal papers, radio and television broadcasts, scripts, joke files, films and other materials donated to the Library by Bob Hope and his family starting in 1998. The exhibition places Bob Hope’s political humor, civic activism and relationship with presidents into historical context by displaying artifacts and audiovisual materials that explore the history of political satire from the Civil War to Stephen Colbert; the involvement of entertainers in causes and controversies from civil rights to Cold-War cultural diplomacy; and the blurring of lines between entertainment and politics that has become commonplace in contemporary times.
The exhibit offers more than 200 documents, photos, posters, cartoons and other objects in its showcases; more than 200 clips from films, television and radio; more than 100 recordings of topical songs in the “Political Jukebox”; and, of course, the incomparable Bob Hope joke file of more than 85,000 pages of jokes, subject-indexed and digitized, that Hope and his writers created throughout his career.
In 1938, Hope, a former vaudevillian and Broadway musical star, began a weekly radio program broadcast nationally over NBC.
“The radio season ran 39 weeks,” he noted. “It didn’t take long to discover that you couldn’t do 39 weeks of mother-in-law jokes.”
He hired eight comedy writers to supply him with an abundant flow of topical material to give the show a sense of immediacy lacking in other radio comedy.
“The front page was our straight line,” Hope recalled. “Whatever you were talking about, whatever you found ludicrous, we zeroed in on. And when it comes to ludicrous, politics is tops.”
Hope also pioneered civic activism on the part of entertainers. In May 1941, he was encouraged to broadcast his radio show from an Army Air Corps base at March Field in Riverside, Calif. This was only about two weeks after the USO itself was formed as an organization dedicated to maintaining the morale of armed-forces personnel. Hope became the USO’s most dedicated entertainer.
During the celebration, the Librarian went on to read an excerpt from a letter written to Hope by an Arlington woman whose son had been killed in action. “Mr. Hope, you gave our son the last few hours of happiness in his life. We lost him shortly after that. From the bottom of my heart and with utmost sincerity, may I say thank you sir, thank you, thank you.”
USO President Sloan Gibson also offered remarks.
“One thing that hasn’t changed, not since the days of Bob Hope, is the way our troops love celebrity entertainment,” he said. “Next year we celebrate our 70th anniversary, and it will be the 70th anniversary of that first performance that Bob did in 1941.”
In 1944, Hope entered the Washington political scene when he appeared at the White House Correspondents’ Association annual dinner attended by President Franklin Roosevelt. FDR particularly liked Hope’s joke that compared the likelihood of locating a room to rent in wartime Washington with that of finding his wife, Eleanor’s, newspaper column, “My Day,” in the Chicago Tribune, a paper owned by the anti-New Deal isolationist Robert R. McCormick.
He entertained 11 presidents from FDR to Bill Clinton. The key to joking with them, he found, was in “making an insult humorous so as to only dent the presidential ego, not damage it.” Presidents loved his ability to make them laugh. In a tribute to Hope, Clinton remarked, “When he makes fun of me or any other president, I think we know he’s doing it with a genuinely good heart and a good spirit and in a way that helps us to laugh at ourselves. And I think we all need to laugh at ourselves a little more.”
“Loyalty was one of his chief traits,” said daughter Linda as she took the podium to reminisce about her father. “Even when President Nixon went through all of his problems, Dad—even though he may have made jokes on one of his shows—always retained his friendship with Nixon because he liked him as a man and felt that he was the president of our country and felt loyal to him. I think that’s a value and a virtue that we can all remember and treasure.”
In recent times, political commentators and ads have adroitly adopted entertainment techniques. In previous eras, broadcast networks enforced regulations designed to segregate entertainment and news. Bob Hope helped dissolve this barrier during the 1952 presidential campaign when he served as a radio and television commentator at both national party conventions. Since the 1960s, with “That Was the Week That Was,” “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” and “Saturday Night Live” and culminating in the recent past with “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report,” the two worlds increasingly have blurred. As many Americans now receive much of their news through entertainment sources, political satire, alive and thriving in the cable television and Internet age, has become an integral component of the democratic process.
Hope’s topical monologues commenting on up-to-the-minute events inaugurated a tradition in American political humor carried on by the likes of Johnny Carson, David Letterman, Jay Leno, and Conan O’Brien.
“I was delighted to see the exhibit and learn that the introduction was filmed by Steven Colbert,” said Gibson. “Precisely a year ago Steven was in Iraq doing four USO shows there. I have a picture of him standing behind the microphone leaning on a golf club. That’s priceless from our perspective, because it really captures in one snapshot that whole continuum of history which Bob Hope is so much a part of.”
The club, from Bob’s 1969 world USO tour, is on display in the exhibition.
“Bob Hope has been an inspiration to the many comedians who came after him who do topical, political humor,” said contemporary satirist Colbert. Reminiscent of his popular television show, Colbert sets up the visitors experience in a tongue-in-cheek introductory video presentation. The video highlights Hope’s USO, television and film performances, and features clips of such notables as David Letterman, Al Franken, Jimmy Carter, Jimmy Stewart, Groucho Marx, Sean Penn, Richard Pryor and Johnny Carson. When asked by Carson about his own political aspirations, Hope replied that his wife “wouldn’t want to move to a smaller house.”
“I think this exhibit is a pretty powerful example of the kind of influence that Dad had during his lifetime,” said Linda. “He loved the exchange and interplay with his audience. His love of people really … informed everything that he did.”
Alan Gevinson is the curator of the Bob Hope exhibit. Erin Allen, acting editor of The Gazette, the Library’s staff newsletter, contributed to this report.