Bob Hope Is History — Comedic and Political

Posted June 16, 2010 at 4:06pm

Bob Hope was a pack rat. The comedian kept notes, photos and knickknacks for decades, creating a vast collection that illustrates not only his career, but also the development of American entertainment over the past century.

Much of this collection can be seen at the Library of Congress’ new exhibition “Hope for America: Performers, Politics and Pop Culture.” This extremely detailed exhibit — it features 86,000 digitized pages of Hope’s jokes — aims to demonstrate that Hope was an American treasure who did much more than entertain the troops. In fact, he was a comedy pioneer who shaped humor and entertainment as we see it today.

“The thing about Bob Hope is that his career paralleled the evolution of American entertainment,” exhibit director Betsy Nahum-Miller says.

In 1998, Hope was looking for a home for his collection and contacted the Library of Congress. The collection arrived at the Library in 1999, and in 2000 the Bob Hope Gallery of American Entertainment opened with an exhibition titled “Bob Hope and American Variety.” That exhibition closed earlier this year to make way for “Hope for America.”

The new exhibition is in three sections: political humor, causes and controversies, and blurring the line between politics and entertainment. Each room is peppered with artifacts — including a golf club he took to Vietnam for his comedy tour — and quotes from Hope himself, all of which drive home the point that Hope changed comedy as we know it. To begin with, he was one of the first entertainers to perform topical humor on the radio.

The networks “wanted comedians to stay away from topical humor because they felt it was too dangerous,” Nahum-Miller explains.

Despite these concerns, Hope forged ahead and became one of the most well-known political humorists of the 20th century. His avant-garde approach paved the way for modern comedians such as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Colbert filmed a welcome video for the exhibit that features him tooling around with Hope’s golf club, and his 2009 visit to troops in Iraq was inspired by Hope’s visits to the troops during the Vietnam War.

The parallels between the two don’t stop there. Hope, who died in 2003, was one of the early speakers at the White House Correspondents Dinner, while Colbert delivered a controversial performance at the dinner in 2006. Hope addressed the scribes in 1944, during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s tenure, and poked fun at first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. A copy of the program of that event signed to Hope from FDR is on display at the Library of Congress.

Hope had an ongoing relationship with many of the presidents despite the fact that he was often making fun of them on stage. Former President Bill Clinton is quoted as having said, “When he makes fun of me or any other president, I think we know he is doing it with a genuinely good heart.”

This point is driven home by a note sent to Hope by former President George H.W. Bush shortly after the beginning of the Gulf War in 1991.

“Dear Bob,” it reads. “Thank you so much for your very supportive phone call. I know in my heart I made the right decision, but the encouragement from friends means a lot.”

Presidents weren’t the only people Hope supported.

When Hope performed for troops around the world, “he’d always visit hospitals, and when he did this soldiers would give him notes for people back home,” curator Alan Gevinson says.

Several of these notes are on display. One is from a soldier asking Hope to contact his family and tell them “that I’m OK.” Beside the note is a handwritten list that Hope kept of the soldiers he met. Some names are crossed off, and while Gevinson is uncertain why, he thinks this may indicate those were the soldiers whose messages Hope had delivered.

While the exhibit is certainly a celebration of Bob Hope and his accomplishments, it is also a celebration of America and the right to free speech. While Hope could say what he pleased when he was stateside, he didn’t have the same rights abroad. In 1962, Hope poked fun at the Kennedy family during a dinner in London, and the Brits were outraged because they have laws against that sort of thing.

“We are showing here that he got into trouble at times with satire,” Gevinson explains. “It just shows how satire was thought to be dangerous.”

Hope was clearly deeply appreciative of his right to speak his mind. The exhibition quotes him as having said, “God gave me a certain ability to make people laugh, but America gave me a chance to do it. In no other country in the world does free speech pay so well.”

The “Hope for America” exhibition is a long-term display and does not have a scheduled closing date.