The Audacity of Hope

Hope: Entertainer of the Century BY Richard Zoglin. Simon & Schuster. Hardcover, 576 pages. $30.

During a 1969 Christmas show from Vietnam, Bob Hope failed, for once, to heed his own advice for entertaining troops. He got sentimental. He got preachy. At the time, Citizen Hope was a well-known flag-waving hawk. But Comedian Hope was something else. He had spent nearly forty years playing the coward’s coward, an icon of irresponsibility, showbiz egomania, and skirt-chasing self-absorption, preferring whenever possible to let his fellow Americans do his part for him. Now he told ten thousand GIs that he had just been to the White House—and added in dead earnest that President Nixon had assured him that he had “a plan to end the war.”

Hope was assailed with boos from the battle-hardened troops—a response that shocked him. Eventually, the unrelenting din forced him off the stage. The comic, who had so ingeniously played off GI cynicism in the past, had severely underestimated the depths of it in Vietnam.

In other Vietnam shows, Comedian Hope got laughs by refusing to sugarcoat our divided home front, as when he sardonically quipped: “The country is behind you, fifty percent.” When GI drug use became public, he ignored NBC censors and announced: “I hear you go in for gardening. The commanding officer says you all grow your own grass.”

Tame today, but the mere mention of marijuana use among troops in 1970 was enough for NBC to cut the one-liner from its broadcast. As our military flailed against Vietcong guerrilla warfare, Comedian Hope even made light of our steady slide into a no-win quagmire: “I asked Secretary McNamara if we could come here. He said, ‘Why not, we’ve tried everything else.’”

And yet, according to Hope’s latest biographer, Time magazine’s Richard Zoglin, by the end of the ’60s Hope was over. He had become “a court-approved jester, the Establishment’s comedian—hardly a badge of honor in an era when hipper, more subversive comics, from Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce to George Carlin and Richard Pryor, were showing that stand-up comedy could be a vehicle for personal expression, social criticism, and political protest,” Zoglin writes in Hope: Entertainer of the Century. “Even before Hope became a doddering relic, he had become an anachronism.”

But to accept this, readers must buy into Zoglin’s suggestion that a comic who pulled a 46.6 percent share of the American viewing audience for his 1969 Vietnam Christmas special had been rendered obsolete by evolving tastes and liberal politics. True, Hope was not a favorite of left-leaning baby boomers. But as history and the elections of Presidents Nixon and Reagan and the two Bushes have shown, left-leaning hipsters of the ’60s have hardly determined our nation’s culture or politics. Was Hope a relic, or did he—and does he still—exert a deep influence on our humor?

Hope, the son of a poor British immigrant family, spent the early twentieth century in various efforts to win the admiration of an emerging mass audience. Eventually, he discovered that the crowds flocking to his vaudeville performances liked him best when he made them laugh.

Zoglin’s book is the best-researched biography of Hope to date. If he gives up on gaining meaningful entry into Hope’s interior life, declaring him emotionally walled off, unknowable (except perhaps to his wife of sixty-nine years, Dolores), he does make serious use of Hope’s business records, his personal correspondence, and interviews with his surviving family. He also provides engaging new insight into how Nixon spun Hope from USO hero into policy hack, with excellent reconstructions of Hope’s Vietnam tours.

The major flaw in Zoglin’s account is his disconnect from Hope’s humor, a considerable hurdle when writing a comedian’s biography. Zoglin’s Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-up in the 1970s Changed America (2008) makes his personal taste clear. In his new book, Zoglin writes of Hope, “The modern stand-up comedy monologue was essentially his creation.” That central contribution isn’t given the consideration it’s due. There’s too little scholarly history of where the monologue was prior to Hope and how, and why, he transformed it. Hope’s World War II movies, whose scripts he and his writers revised, likewise get only glancing attention. Zoglin sees no comic auteur at work, merely a peppy patriot full of sharp one-liners.

Hope’s ascendancy coincided with World War II and FDR’s signing of the 1940 Selective Training and Service Act, which forced the kids we now call the Greatest Generation—Hope’s core audience—to sign up for the draft. Hope soon tapped into what James Jones, in From Here to Eternity (1951), called “our reluctant civilian army.” By 1941, he was performing at US military bases and had made Caught in the Draft, in which he played a self-centered Hollywood comedian desperate to avoid service. There’s no flag-waving, no effort to sell FDR’s line on the war. “Hope was playing more to type than he was probably ready to admit,” Zoglin writes, as if Hope had unwittingly revealed something craven about himself.

This is, precisely, backward. Hope kidded himself weekly as a self-centered comedian on NBC, and giving voice to the frustration he divined in his audience is the movie’s unmistakable point. Hope referred to his character as a “reluctant hero.” His draftee is the embodiment of what Saul Bellow evoked in Dangling Man (1944) when he wrote: “I answered that I was preparing myself spiritually, that I was willing to be a member of the Army, but not a part of it. He thought this a very witty answer. He believes I am a natural comedian and laughs at everything I say. The more serious I become, the harder he laughs.”

Citizen Hope, like everyone else, supported the war effort. But no matter what most wartime comedies look like, it’s unlikely that GIs believed combat would be a romp spiked with songs from the Andrews Sisters. In 1942, Comedian Hope released Road to Morocco, the comedy that inspired Woody Allen in his choice of career. After admiring the film as inventive fun, Zoglin writes, “The Morocco setting turned out to be unfortunately timed—Allied troops invaded North Africa just days before the film’s release.”

No, Hope’s timing was always perfect. Road to Morocco came out the same month as Casablanca. In Morocco, Bing Crosby sells Hope into servitude under a royal family. They want to use Hope as a patsy to be killed (most likely by a warlord, as foretold in a mystic’s prophecy), to ensure that the royal family and the warlord may prosper (an obvious enough analogy for Hope’s audience). Watching Hope run for his life in his North Africa was as much a release for our reluctant civilians as watching Bogart’s inspiring decision to fight Nazis in his.

Zoglin’s unwillingness to regard Hope as a serious satirist leads him into oversimplifications—like his claim that Hope was a McCarthyite. Zoglin pins this on a spontaneous pro-McCarthy comment Hope made at an audience Q&A in London in 1953. It came after Hope had been drubbing McCarthy for months on TV, needling him on his December 1952 Christmas special—fifteen months before Edward R. Murrow, eighteen months before the Army-McCarthy hearings discredited McCarthy, and a year before the debut of Sahl, the comic who launched Zoglin’s preferred era of comedy. Hope allied himself with Eisenhower, who loathed McCarthy. Of one golfing game with Ike, Hope noted, “He was hitting the ball much farther than I . . . [and] he had Senator McCarthy’s picture painted on the ball.”

If Hope’s anti-McCarthy jokes appear lightweight today, it’s important to remember he was reaching families watching his 1952 Christmas special, not Sahl’s midnight crowds at jazz clubs. Judging by the right-wing hate mail Hope received, the public perceived him as anti-McCarthy, and he continued baiting the infamous Red-baiter through 1954 (up to and after his pro-McCarthy statement). With so much blacklist-era scholarship available, revealing how entertainers placated Red-baiters in public, sometimes with coerced testimony, yet still made socially critical art, Zoglin could have provided more context. Gary Cooper, a founding member of the pro-blacklisting Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, made the anti-blacklisting–themed western High Noon (1952) with blacklisted writer Carl Foreman. John Ford joined the same organization yet directed Fort Apache (1948), a film harshly critical of our military. Zoglin’s simple glosses of such complicated times don’t make his case. Citizen Hope knuckled under that day in London, yes. But Comedian Hope didn’t.

Indeed, Hope was a far cry from the right-wing icon that Zoglin presents here. He was pro-union and mixed on FDR. As Rick Perlstein notes in his 2001 study of the 1964 election, Before the Storm, LBJ’s campaign targeted him as a liberal Republican who wavered on Goldwater—and got some support from Hope in return. As late as the Reagan era, Hope still felt that a GOP moderate like Eisenhower was his personal hero.

Was Hope a relic by 1970? To hipsters, sure. Nevertheless, his specials scored ratings into the ’80s. Hope had little to do with Pryor and Carlin, but his true heir at NBC, Johnny Carson, not to mention Carson’s legion of successors, proves that Hope’s flippant, topical monologue has never left us. There’s also Hope’s (and Jack Benny’s) obvious influence on ’70s comedians who played versions of themselves as show-business boors, like Albert Brooks (who cites Hope as an influence in Zoglin’s previous book) and Steve Martin.

Zoglin’s book closes the door on future backstage Hope biographies. We know enough now about his politics, women, and money. What we need is something more thoughtful, like Garry Wills’s John Wayne’s America or Sean Wilentz’s Bob Dylan in America. For a comedian who hosted one of FDR’s White House Correspondents’ dinners and golfed with Bill Clinton, there are deeper questions, yet unanswered, as to why we needed him so long—and what his humor says about us.

Ben Schwartz is an Emmy-nominated comedy writer currently working on a history of American humor between the world wars.