TO ENSURE LOYAL VOTERS, GRACIE ALLENíS BUTTONS WERE THE SEW-ON KIND

by Cynthia Crossen
The Wall Street Journal
10-27-2004


Her platform was "redwood trimmed with Ďnuttyí pine." She welcomed foreign relations, "so long as they bring their own bedding and donít stay too long." And while she sympathized with the poor, she rightly noted that "even brokers vote, especially if it doesnít rain on election day and the Yanks are playing out of town."

She was Gracie Allen, and in 1940, she ran for president of the United States.

Ms. Allenís quixotic campaign began as a publicity stunt for the radio comedy show she performed with her husband, George Burns. Though the gag was scheduled to last only two weeks, Ms. Allenís candidacy took on a life of its own. Within a few months, she had a mascot (a kangaroo), a slogan ("Itís in the bag.", a song (one line: "If the countryís going Gracie, so can you.") and a 34-city shistle-stop tour that went from Los Angeles to Omaha, Neb., where her newly formed Surprise Party gathered for its first-and last-nomination convention.

Ms. Allen was not the only entertainer who dabbled in presidential politics. Eddie Cantor, the much-loved singer and actor, announced his candidacy on the radio in 1932. Will Rogersís name was floated in 1928 and 1932. Later, Pat Paulsen would throw his hat into the ring of the 1968, Ď72 and Ď76 elections. But Gracie Allen was the only one who, as she herself conceded, "forgot to take her hat off before she threw it in the ring."

In 1940, America was struggling back from the Depression. Franklin Roosevelt was running for an unprecedented third term against Republican Wendell Willkie. Radio comedy was still in its golden years, though television was fast approaching.

Ms. Allenís campaign was cartoonish and self-mocking, and she never made any attempt to get her name on a ballot. (In real life, neither she nor Mr. Burns publicly supported political candidates or causes.) She did, however, take some uncompromising stands on the issues of the day. She believed that Congress should work on a commission: "Whenever the country prospered, Congress would get 10% of the additional take." Also, farms should be larger "so asparagus can gro lying down."

As for the idea that a woman couldnít cope with the demands of the office, she declared, "If a woman isnít qualified to be president, why is it you never see anything but pants on scarecrows?" Also, she asked, didnít men have plenty of their own shortcomings? "When I think of the awkward way our presidents act when a French ambassador kisses them on both cheeks," she asked, "I donít have to tell you any more, do I, brother?"

On the radio, and later on television, Gracie Allenís character was ditzy and obtuse. But in real life Ms. Allen was brainy and creative, and she executed several brilliant stunts. Earlier, she pretended to have painted 10 surrealist works of art (produced for the gag by someone else), with titles such as "Beyond the Before Yet Under the Vast Above, the World Is in Tears and Tomorrow is Tuesday." She persuaded a New York gallery owner to display the art, and the exhibit subsequently traveled across the country. Later, Ms. Allen would become proficient playing "Concerto for Index Finger," which she eventually performed at Carnegie Hall.

In her presidential campaign, Ms. Allen knew her lack of experience meant an uphill battle. "Lincoln had certain advantages we donít have today," she grumbled. "For instance, he could go out and split a bunch of rails, but the railroads are using iron ones more and more." As for kissing babies, Ms. Allen discriminated on the basis of gender: "I wonít kiss male babies until theyíre over 21," she explained. She also invented the sew-on campaign button to discourage her supporters from changing their minds.

Gracie Allen learned enough about politics in 1940 to write (with a ghostwriter) "How to become President," a book of advice for future candidates. "Presidents are made, not born," she noted. "Thatís a good thing to remember. Itís silly to think that presidents are born, because very few people are 35 years old at birth, and those who are wonít admit it." In composing campaign letters, she counseled, "Donít start out, ĎDear Sir or Madam.í Be definite. People like to be one or the other." Another suggestion: "You should come from a good family, because while breeding isnít everything, it is said to be lots of fun."

Humorists have always found rich material in politics. As Will Rogers once said, "I donít make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts." Mr. Rogers also had some acerbic comments on international relations. "Diplomacy," he said, "is the art of saying ĎNice doggieí while looking for a rock."

But Pat Paulsen, whose presidential campaign began on "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," didnít just make fun of government. He believed American know-how could make the world a better place. For example, he strongly supported the U.S. space program. "I for one," he declared, "would like to know once and for all: How does the moon control the tides? And why does the coyote look up at it and go ahooooooh?"


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