By James H. Billington
The late, legendary entertainer Bob Hope once joked, “I love to go to Washington, if only to be near my money.”
As one of America’s most honored and most successful comedians, Hope joked about our political life with affection on many occasions, and always in ways that ended up affirming and enriching our nation.
Since 1998, the Library of Congress, has been the proud home of the Bob Hope Collection of documents, photos, videos, films, posters, and other materials. At the heart of this treasured collection is his astounding file of some 85,000 jokes, one of which is the quip above.
Throughout his career, Bob Hope played an unforgettable role in supporting and entertaining American service men and women wherever they were serving. His style illustrated the interplay among entertainers, politics, and social issues. Hope’s legacy is on display at the Library of Congress in a new exhibition that opened this summer, “Hope for America: Performers, Politics & Pop Culture,” which was made possible through the generous contributions of Bob and Dolores Hope and their family.
Bob Hope is too big for any single exhibit, and “Hope for America” follows a previous Library exhibition focused on his roots in vaudeville and the early traditions of American variety entertainment.
The exhibit draws widely from personal papers, radio and television broadcasts, scripts, joke files, films, and other materials donated to the Library by the late Bob Hope and his family. “Hope for America” places Bob Hope’s political humor, civic activism, and relationship with presidents into historical context. It displays artifacts and audiovisual materials tracing the history of political satire from the Civil War to the present—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 also offers more than 200 documents—photos, posters, cartoons—in showcases; more than 200 clips from films, television, and radio; more than 100 recordings of topical songs in the “Political Jukebox;” and, of course, Hope’s incomparable file of more than 85,000 pages of indexed and digitized jokes.
Hope, a one-time vaudevillian and Broadway musical star, in 1938 moved into the more topical humor for which he became known with a weekly national radio program on NBC. “The radio season ran 39 weeks,” Hope noted. “It didn’t take long to discover that you couldn’t do 39 weeks of mother-in-law jokes.”
Hope hired eight comedy writers to supply him with an abundant flow of material that gave the show a sense of immediacy that was 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.”
In 1944, Hope entered the Washington political scene at the White House Correspondents Association’s annual dinner, attended by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. FDR particularly enjoyed Hope’s joke that compared the difficulty 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, then owned by the anti-New Deal isolationist Robert R. McCormick.
Hope 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.”
These themes were echoed at a celebration of Bob Hope on June 10, the eve of the exhibition’s opening, at the Library of Congress.
“Loyalty was one of his chief traits,” his daughter Linda said 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.”
More than merely a commentator, Bob Hope also pioneered civic activism on the part of entertainers. In May 1941, he broadcast his radio show from an Army Air Corps Base at March Field in Riverside, California. This occurred just after the USO was formed as an organization dedicated to maintaining the morale of Armed Forces personnel. Hope soon became the USO’s most dedicated entertainer.
At the opening of the exhibit, I had the honor of sharing a story of Hope’s affect on our military. In a letter written to Hope by an Arlington, Virginia, woman whose son had been killed in action she wrote: “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.”
But the emotions those encounters engendered were not just one-sided, as Bob Hope said in 1944: “Believe me when I say that laughter up at the front lines is a very precious thing—precious to those grand guys who are giving and taking the awful business that goes on there…. There’s a lump the size of Grant’s Tomb in your throat when they come up to you and shake your hand and mumble, ‘Thanks.’ Imagine those guys thanking me! Look what they’re doing for me. And for you.”
“One thing that hasn’t changed, not since the days of Bob Hope, is the way our troops love celebrity entertainment,” said Sloan Gibson, president and CEO of the USO. “Next year, we celebrate our 70th anniversary, and it also will be the 70th anniversary of that first performance that Bob did in 1941.”
In more 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 that 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, culminating today with The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, the two worlds increasingly intersect.
As many Americans now receive much of their news through entertainment sources and political satire, Hope’s style is alive and thriving in the cable television and Internet age, and has become an integral component of the democratic process. Bob Hope’s topical monologues commenting on up-to-the-minute events inaugurated a tradition in American political humor carried on by Johnny Carson, David Letterman, Jay Leno, and Conan O’Brien.
“I was delighted to see the introduction of the exhibit was filmed by Stephen Colbert,” Gibson said. “Precisely a year ago, Stephen 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 of which Bob Hope is so much a part.”
Hope’s famous golf club, from his 1969 World USO Tour, is on display in “Hope for America.”
Born Leslie Townes Hope in England, Bob Hope was literally for America, an unapologetic booster of our country and its people.
“I think this exhibit is a pretty powerful example of the kind of influence that Dad had during his lifetime,” Linda Hope said. “He loved the exchange and interplay with his audience. His love of people really invaded and informed everything that he did.”
–James H. Billington is the 13th Librarian of Congress. Alan Gevinson, curator of “Hope for America,” contributed to this article.
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