Blurring of the Lines
In contemporary times there has been a blurring of lines between the two worlds of entertainment and politics. After the end of World War II, performers represented the U.S. government abroad in cultural diplomacy initiatives. In ensuing decades, entertainers have run for high public office, barriers between the once separate domains of news and entertainment programs have fallen, and the electoral process increasingly has become infused with entertainment values.
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Controversy and Confusion
When entertainers inserted themselves into the world of politics, they risked alienating their fans. Bob Hope’s position on the Vietnam War put his comedy at risk. Newsweek reported that during Hope’s 1969 Christmas tour in Vietnam, soldiers booed when he relayed Nixon’s promise of “a solid plan for ending the war.” In later years, Hope wrote, “I realized they weren’t booing me or the jokes, but they knew the show was going to be seen at home and it was the only way they had of trying to let the country and the President know how they felt.” Hope’s status as a celebrity allowed him to serve as a conduit for soldiers in the field to send a message home to their leaders through press coverage of the event. When entertainers took on such politically influential roles, their actions invited controversy and, in many cases, confusion.
I just hated to get involved in politics. It used to be considered corny to be too patriotic . . . like you are almost commercializing on patriotism. There was that danger. I stayed away from it until this past year, when I figured that it had to be pretty important. I got a very negative feeling that the country was getting very little support from the news media. And I felt that they were being unfair.
—Bob Hope, 1970
Entertainment and the News
Historically, broadcasting networks have tried to separate news and entertainment. In 1976 CBS News president Richard S. Salant insisted on “drawing the sharpest possible line . . . between our line of broadcast business, which is dealing with fact, and that in which our associates on the entertainment side of the business are generally engaged.” By the 1990s, the lines had blurred. CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather complained in 1993 that “the Hollywoodization of news” had replaced the journalistic ethos of the Murrow era. With the rise of cable television, celebrity pundits pushed politics further into the realm of spectacle. In response, comedians created faux news shows satirizing the pundits, as they themselves became important sources of news for a new generation of viewers.
One of the basic troubles with radio and television news is that both instruments have grown up as an incompatible combination of show business, advertising, and news.
—Edward R. Murrow, 1958
Television and Politics
Television swept the nation during the 1950s, with the number of sets increasing from one million in 1949 to fifty million ten years later. This phenomenal growth marked a new era in communications, one that many believed would change politics dramatically. In 1951, a White House communication related President Harry Truman’s concern that congressional hearings should cease to be televised “because of the tendency to make Roman holidays of them.” Although Senator John F. Kennedy warned in 1959 that television could be “abused by demagogues, by appeals to emotion and prejudice and ignorance,” he believed that television’s “net effect can definitely be for the better.” He contended that the new medium gave the public a new opportunity to detect for themselves deception and honesty in a politician’s image.
TV has altered drastically the nature of our political campaigns, conventions, constituents, candidates, and costs.
—Senator John F. Kennedy, 1959
Politics and Camp
You can always take the pulse of a time by studying its second-rate arts—its western and crime movies, radio and TV shows, its true love magazines, its comic books. They are all close approximations of the fantasy life of the lowest common denominator . . . . To know the true temper of a nation’s people, turn not to its sociologists; turn to its junk.
—Jules Feiffer, 1966
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Presidents on occasion have called upon entertainers for assistance with speeches. Orson Welles helped FDR during the 1944 campaign. Actor Robert Montgomery spent a number of years as an unpaid advisor to President Eisenhower to improve his television technique. Senator John F. Kennedy told jokes provided by Mort Sahl during the 1960 campaign. President Ford obtained jokes and coaching from Don Penny, a standup comic, writer, actor, and television ad producer. Al Franken wrote material for President Clinton and Vice President Gore before leaving the entertainment world to make a successful run for the Senate. Although Bob Hope sent jokes to President Johnson during the 1964 campaign, he and his writers contributed the most material to Hope’s golfing buddy, Vice President Spiro T. Agnew.
But I love President Nixon’s philosophy . . . “If you can’t say something nice about someone, let Agnew say it.”
—Bob Hope, 1970
Hope and the Presidents
Bob Hope had a special affinity for presidents. He could make them laugh—at him, of course—but also at themselves. From FDR to Bill Clinton, Hope played the White House court jester, often poking pointed jabs at the high and mighty—Republicans and Democrats alike—though his satiric thrusts always were inflected with respect and often with affection. The key to joking with presidents, Hope 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. A White House request to Hope in 1956 to emcee a dinner put it well: “Your presence will make it possible for President Eisenhower to escape for several hours the onerous weight of his public burdens and cares.”
The first presidential joke I ever told was about George Washington: George told his father, “I cannot tell a lie.” I don’t know how he made it in politics! [Bob Hope, 1996]
Can you imagine if today’s press were around in Lincoln’s time? When he started out the Gettysburg address with the words “Four score and seven years ago,” the press would report it as “Lincoln says he scored four times in seven years.” [Bob Hope, September 3, 1992]
Well, this is the year we vote for President. . . . And President Roosevelt has finally decided to quit throwing his hat in the ring. . . . He’s just tied a string on it now and works it like a yo-yo. [Bob Hope, January 29, 1944]
Truman was in fine shape when he talked to Congress. . . . He was full of vim, vigor, and veto. [Bob Hope, January 10, 1950]
Ike spent his birthday on the golf course. . . . He knows what he’s doing. It’s his one chance to walk into the locker room and say “Sixty-eight today.” [Bob Hope, October 14, 1958]
President Kennedy is just winding up a non-political tour of the eleven states he lost in the last election. . . . It really is non-political. He just wants to see how they’re getting along without federal aid. [Bob Hope, October 5, 1963]
President Johnson couldn’t be here tonight. He’s busy. He’s placing a wreath on the tomb of the “unknown foreign policy.” [Bob Hope, January 21, 1967]
President Nixon wanted to be here tonight but he’s preparing his speech on the Watergate and he’s busy typing it. . . . Which is pretty tough to do with your fingers crossed. [Bob Hope, August 14, 1973]
Jerry Ford didn’t tape record anyone. He had the equipment but every time he threw the switch it hit someone. [Bob Hope, February 8, 1982]
Wasn’t Carter’s interview in Playboy something? He talks like Billy Graham and dreams like Sinatra. . . . Now we know what he’s always smiling about. [Bob Hope, October 7, 1976]
You all know that Reagan is our oldest chief executive. . . . Poli-Grip is now the official presidential seal. [Bob Hope, May 3, 1982]
George Bush told me to read his lips. While I had my eyes on his lips, he went for my wallet. [Bob Hope, July 19, 1990]
Clinton loves to make long speeches. In fact, this will be the first inaugural address with an intermission. [Bob Hope, 1993]
I’ve known eleven presidents about as intimately as a man can without being either a fellow politician or related. I’ve golfed with them, dined with them, told jokes with them. I’ve even had them steal my material. Laughter is nonpartisan—a great leveler. And maybe that’s the one thing all eleven presidents have in common. As long as it’s funny, you can say almost anything to them and get away with it.
—Bob Hope, 1996
Entertainers in Politics
Members of the entertainment field have long served as behind-the-scenes players in politics. But during World War II, Clare Boothe Luce and Helen Gahagan Douglas, two figures of note from stage and screen, left the entertainment world to win seats in Congress. And, in the 1960s, song-and-dance man George Murphy was elected to the U.S. Senate and Ronald Reagan became governor of California. Especially in the television era, entertainers found that their ability to connect with the public served them well in politics. Although the number of actors-turned-politicians has remained limited, entertainers have continued to span both worlds.
It’s tough for an actor in politics. With your old movies on TV, it’s like having a built-in smear campaign.
—Bob Hope, 1969
Hope for the World
During the Cold War, Bob Hope represented the United States abroad in initiatives designed to ease global tensions. Following a State Department-sponsored trip to Moscow in 1958, Hope received the George Foster Peabody Award for his contribution to international understanding. In his television special about the trip, Hope included some of Russia’s top performers, prompting critic Jack Gould to write, “It was Mr. Hope who penetrated the Iron Curtain and brought to a large mass American audience a new awareness of the country that is uppermost in our national concern.” Two decades later, when Hope traveled to Communist China, a Chinese sleight-of-hand artist conveyed the desired aim of cultural diplomacy when she displayed a banner reading, “Long live the friendship between the Chinese and American people.” In 1963, President Kennedy deemed Hope “America’s most prized ‘Ambassador of Good Will’ throughout the world” as he presented him with the Congressional Gold Medal.
The State Department was glad to have me come here because I’m cooperative, I’m personable, I’m charming, and expendable.
—Bob Hope, 1958
Cultural diplomacy, in contrast to more traditional forms of political, economic, and military interactions, assumed great importance during the Cold War as the U.S. responded to what a State Department official called the “gigantic propaganda offensive” of the Soviet Union. In 1954, President Eisenhower established an Emergency Fund for International Affairs in part to support cultural presentations abroad. The International Cultural Exchange and Trade Fair Participation Act of 1956 established a permanent place for cultural diplomacy. On signing the act, Eisenhower stated he hoped that “little by little, mistrust based on falsehoods will give way to international understanding based on truth.” From 1954 through 1959, some 140 groups of American performing artists and athletes traveled to more than 90 countries. Jazz musicians and modern dance troupes in particular represented an American cultural life that was vibrant, fresh, and inspiring to artists and audiences throughout the world.
Music costs so much less and produces so much better a result than any propaganda or weaponry . . . . There are no warmer feelings than those engendered by music.
—Leonard Bernstein, 1959