BOB GARFIELD: Comedian Bob Hope who died earlier this week at the age of 100 was an American cultural institution and a mass media phenomenon in films, radio and TV. He even had a web site of his jokes. But he also filled another role, widely ignored in the coverage surrounding his death. He was the successor of Will Rogers and the predecessor of Johnny Carson as a public oracle, in his day the pre-eminent ridiculer of officialdom. Joining me now is William Robert Faith, colleague and biographer of Bob Hope and professor of communications at the University of Southern California. Bill, welcome to OTM!
WILLIAM ROBERT FAITH: Thank you very much for having me here.
BOB GARFIELD: The obituaries that I've read of Bob Hope this week characterize him as essentially an apolitical comedian. Was Bob Hope an apolitical comedian?
WILLIAM ROBERT FAITH: It depends on how you mean "political."
BOB GARFIELD: Was any if his humor about what was going on in the daily political scene?
WILLIAM ROBERT FAITH: Oh, yes. It started I think really after he had had the first opportunity to entertain President Franklin Roosevelt in 1944. He was invited to the Gridiron Dinner, and that's a free for all, so he just let it go.
BOB GARFIELD: Do you know any of the jokes?
WILLIAM ROBERT FAITH:Yeah. There was a great thing going on at the time with Roosevelt's fight with McCormack of the Tribune, and Hope said "Trying to find a room in Washington is like trying to find My Day in the Chicago Tribune."
BOB GARFIELD: That's [LAUGHS] the Eleanor Roosevelt column.
WILLIAM ROBERT FAITH:That's the-- yeah. And they were still laughing, and so he said "And did you know, speaking of the Chicago Tribune, that Fala was the only dog ever housebroken on that paper?"
BOB GARFIELD: That was FDR's little dog.
WILLIAM ROBERT FAITH:Right. That's the nonlethal kind of humor that Hope was using for the people in high places. He pulled the rug out, but never let 'em fall too heavy. He was reminding the people that he knew there were some things in the newspaper that they ought to pay attention to.
BOB GARFIELD: And this was his modus throughout his career, at least from the '40s on.
WILLIAM ROBERT FAITH: Yes, right. It was.
BOB GARFIELD:Let's talk about Vietnam for a moment. The impression left by the obituary material is that he became a staunch supporter of the Nixon administration and its policies in Vietnam. But let's take a little closer look. First, let's hear something he told the troops at one of his USO performances in South Vietnam.
BOB HOPE: But don't worry about those riots you hear about in the States. You'll be sent to survival school before they send you back there. [LAUGHTER & APPLAUSE] Now I have real good news for you -- I want to tell you guys the country's behind you 50 percent. [LAUGHTER]
WILLIAM ROBERT FAITH: I was there. I was standing offstage so I heard it, I heard it all. I think what happened was that he thought they better know.
BOB GARFIELD:Is it your thought that Bob Hope was in the corner of the administration or was he just identifying with the troops whom he had served for so long through more than one war.
WILLIAM ROBERT FAITH: I think definitely the latter. I think he had a dedication to the guys that he had started entertaining in 1941 and had done consecutively for all those years in the camp shows, even after the war going back over to Europe to entertain them before they came home-- there was nothing phony about his relationship with the GIs.
BOB GARFIELD:As early as 1968, in some of his appearances before the troops in Vietnam he was actually ragging the administration. For example he spoke of the Paris Peace Talks and he, he said "If you're wondering what's going on with the Paris Peace Talks, here's the latest up-to-the-second flash on what they're doing over there." And then he went silent! [LAUGHS] And he said that was it. [LAUGHTER] And then he took a shot at Vice President Spiro Agnew.
WILLIAM ROBERT FAITH: Mm-hm. Oh, yes. Oh, yes.
BOB GARFIELD: President Nixon was looking for a new negotiator in the Paris talks. Then Hope said "He can't send Spiro. He'd start another war." That doesn't sound to me like a guy who was in lockstep with the Nixon administration.
WILLIAM ROBERT FAITH: No. He, however, was a golfing buddy of Spiro Agnew, which may or may not have any difference at that point, and whether you can place golf with somebody and still differ from 'em.
BOB GARFIELD:If Bob Hope was a knee-jerk reactionary of some sort, it wasn't in evidence during the Red Scare of the '50s. He went right after--Joe McCarthy!
WILLIAM ROBERT FAITH: Yes. Because McCarthy was jabbing at his friend Eisenhower, cause they played golf together, and Eisenhower had been the great general in North Africa when Hope was entertaining the troops there. So about 18 months before the general public thought that McCarthy had gone too far and was discredited, Hope was doing McCarthy jokes.
BOB GARFIELD: Examples?
WILLIAM ROBERT FAITH:You want a sample? "McCarthy is going to disclose the names of 2 million Communists. He's just got his hands on the Moscow Telephone Directory."
BOB GARFIELD: Your biography is called
BOB HOPE: A Life in Comedy, but you have written about Bob Hope previously in your PhD dissertation.
WILLIAM ROBERT FAITH: That's right.
BOB GARFIELD: Which is about popular oracles. In the pantheon of American popular oracles, where does Bob Hope stand?
WILLIAM ROBERT FAITH:I think he's -- was in the tradition of Will Rogers -- very, very much so. NBC sent him to Chicago for the conventions -- like Will Rogers had done. You know, he sat in the booth above the convention floor and commented. He was an absolute fabulous communicator. He was able to communicate ideas and thoughts and things in, what, how many media? -- movies -television - radio -- but he made us probably more aware of the humor in politics. For a long time since Rogers there hadn't been a lot of that. There had been humorist columnists in the newspaper, but nobody in mass media, to the extent that Hope was a mass media communicator.
BOB GARFIELD: Well Bill, thank you very much.
WILLIAM ROBERT FAITH: You're very welcome.
BOB GARFIELD: William Robert Faith is the author of
BOB HOPE: A Life in Comedy, and just retiring from the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Southern California. [THEME MUSIC]