Saturday, November 1, 2008
Political humor: vote for Gracie?
10/15/08 Chatterbox Betty Kaiser Americans take their presidential elections very seriously. Everywhere I go, I hear voters debating the pros and cons of electing either Barrack Obama or John McCain as president. In grocery store aisles, sitting in a restaurant or waiting in line at the post office, voters are engaged, informed and intelligently discussing the issues. Unfortunately, our very human candidates are being judged by super human standards. Their positions on our nation’s political hot-potato issues are meticulously dissected. Then, their individual personalities, faith, style of communication, personal ticks and idiosyncrasies are brought out and laid on the table to be examined. It is impossible for any one person to measure up. Politics has ever been this way and it seldom changes. In my lifetime, probably the most notable difference in presidential elections is the duration of the campaigns before the convention. Campaigning once took a few brief months but now comprises the better part of two years. ‘Back in the day,’ candidates were actually chosen at the convention as were the vice presidential candidates. Contestants would slug it out on the convention floor right up to the final bell. The last time that happened was probably 25 years ago. Candidates are now officially ratified at the convention not chosen. In 1972 Sen. George McGovern and former Vice President Hubert Humphrey battled it out at the Democratic convention. McGovern prevailed but later blamed his loss to Nixon on the infighting in his own party saying “We were so badly scarred up by that battle the last 30 days for the nomination … and the nation saw a party in disarray.” In 1976 it was the Republicans who found themselves in-fighting. President Nixon had been forced to resign because of Watergate. His vice president, Gerald Ford, had finished out his term of office as president. Ford had the office but challenger Ronald Reagan had captured the hearts of the Republican Party. Nevertheless, Ford was the incumbent; he had the experience and the contacts and he won the nomination. But, in one of the surprises of the century, he lost to Democrat Jimmy Carter. One thing hasn’t changed and that is the lack of a sense of humor on the part of the candidates. Campaigning is serious business when it’s your name on the ballot. You don’t just shrug off insults when your reputation is at stake. Besides, your country’s future hangs in the balance and you think that you’ve got the answers to all its problems. But every so often humorous candidates surface and lighten up the whole process. Back in the early days of radio, Eddie Cantor and Will Rogers made slapstick runs at the White House. Today we have Saturday Night Live to bring a little levity to the proceedings. One of the funniest comedians to address political comedy was ditzy Gracie Allen. She and hubby George Burns were comedic stars of radio, stage, screen and television. Burns was the straight man who wrote the material but the audience loved silly Gracie and her earnest delivery of skewed answers to Burn’s serious questions. In March 1940 on the Burns and Allen radio show, Gracie announced that she was forming a new political party and declared her candidacy for president. War was simmering across Europe; times were grim and getting worse. This was the era of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Wendell L. Wilkie and Thomas E. Dewey. Laughter was in short supply. Gracie’s new party was called the “Surprise Party.” After all, she said, her mother was a Democrat, her father a Republican and she was born a — Surprise! To keep her candidacy alive, Gracie made unannounced appearances on other radio shows to offer her views on the issues of the day. The public loved it because they never knew where she would pop up. It was sort of like “Where’s Waldo?” One day she could be found at Fibber McGee and Molly and the next on The Jack Benny Program. When Ken Murray, host of The Texaco Star Theatre, asked her which party she was affiliated with, she answered in typical Gracie form: “I may take a drink now and then, but I never get affiliated.” Eventually she and George crossed the country, on a whistle-stop campaign tour, performing their radio show live from Hollywood to Omaha. Gracie garnered laughs and brightened lives with her one-liners: “I don’t know much about the Lend-Lease Bill but if we owe it, we should pay it!” The couple published a book “Gracie Allen for President” containing photos of the tour and the Surprise Party Convention in Omaha where she was nominated for president of the United States. When all was said and done, Gracie garnered a few hundred votes and tens of thousands of smiles — which is all she wanted. Comedian Pat Paulsen was a perennial candidate who injected humor into campaigns for nearly 30 years. He was recruited by the politically incorrect Smothers Brothers to run for president in 1968. Paulsen belonged to what he called the “Straight Talking American Government Party or STAG for short.” Every week he flooded the airways with his deadpan delivery of obvious political lies and attacks on the major candidates. He responded to any personal criticism with his catch phrase of “picky, picky, picky.” His campaign slogan was “Just a common, ordinary simple savior of America’s destiny.” His aspirations were obviously comedic and aimed at political arrogance but he ran his tongue-in-cheek campaigns until his death in 1997. Thank goodness for comedians who use gentle humor to point out our politicians humanity. By laughing together perhaps we can bond during this crazy-making time of decisions. I read somewhere that “If a person is well-informed he can run for political office. And if the voters are not well-informed, he can get elected.” Our job is to get informed and vote!
Betty Kaiser’s Chatterbox is about people, places, family, and other matters of the heart. Her columns are published in the Cottage Grove Sentinel.