One of my favorite Bob Hope one liners is from 1940’s The Ghost Breakers. A man explains to Hope’s character what a zombie is: “When a man dies, it seems a certain voodoo priest has the power to break him back to life … a zombie has no will of his own. You see them sometimes walking around blindly with dead eyes, following orders, not knowing what they do, not caring.”
Hope responds, “You mean like Democrats?”
Right-wingers love to share this clip as an example of lifelong Republican Hope “destroying” liberals. However, the two parties weren’t quite the same when Hope delivered this zinger. Most white Southern conservatives were still Democrats, and Republicans who held moderate to liberal views on domestic issues were prominent in the northeast and industrial midwest. Although Republicans collectively opposed the “New Deal,” the 1936 Republican platform promoted “equal opportunity for our colored citizens. We pledge our protection of their economic status and personal safety” and “opposed to legislation which discriminates against women in Federal and State employment.”
Meanwhile, Ronald Reagan was a Democrat in 1940 and one of those poor political “zombies” Hope mocked. Reagan idolized President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, voting for him all four times. He voted for Harry Truman in 1948 and considered himself an “an ardent New Dealer.”
The popular right-wing narrative is that Reagan left the Democratic Party after growing disillusioned with Hollywood labor tactics and high taxes. However, Reagan formally became a Republican in 1962, during the Kennedy administration, and he’d later become a vocal supporter of Barry Goldwater. This was also when those white Southern conservatives started to flock to the Republican Party, specifically after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Right Acts of 1964. Jackie Robinson was a Republican, along with millions of other Black Americans, and New York Republican Gov. Nelson Rockefeller was an active supporter of Dr. Martin Luther King, who said, “If we had one or two governors in the Deep South like Nelson Rockefeller, many of our problems could be readily solved.”
Richard Nixon had gone from promising Robinson in 1960 that he’d support civil rights to directly appealing to segregationists in 1968 with his “Southern strategy.” So, this brief history should put in context the schism between Democrat-turned-Republican Reagan and Bob Hope that The Nation details in its article, “How Bob Hope Got Cancelled By The Right.”
Hope’s eldest daughter, Linda Hope, had come out to him as a lesbian in the 1970s. Hope had a friendly working relationship with singer Anita Bryant, who’d become infamous for her anti-gay activism. Bryant was like Libs of TikTok if that bigot could sing “Paper Roses.” Hope started taking jabs at Bryant in the form of his hardly edgy granddad humor: “They’re naming a street after Anita Bryant in Miami,” he said. “Of course, it’s one-way.”
Even this toothless humor was enough to arouse the wrath of Hope’s chief sponsor, Texaco.
“They say to me, ‘Bob can’t you let up on this a little? It’s a very touchy subject.’ Well, of course I can’t because I work on topical humor.” After [Bryant’s bigoted] Save the Children’s 1977 victory in Dade County, the issue ceased to be topical, and Hope stopped (for a while). In a later interview about gay rights, headlined “Why I Don’t Agree With the War on Homosexuals,” Hope didn’t mention his daughter, but he emphasized his firm support of gay rights. “We’re all entitled to our own sexual habits,” he said.
It is certainly in character for a Republican to suddenly care about an issue once it impacts them personally. However, Hope didn’t just protect his daughter privately while publicly denouncing who she was (like Strom Thurmond and his secret Black daughter). He took a risky public stand and refused to back down.
When Reagan refused to even publicly acknowledge “AIDS,” Hope co-hosted AIDS research benefits with Elizabeth Taylor. But he also made horrible jokes about the disease: “The Statue of Liberty has AIDS. They don’t know if she got it from the mouth of the Hudson or the Staten Island ferry.” Unfortunately, much younger (and supposedly more liberal) comedians than Hope had cruelly joked about AIDS, including Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy.
What’s interesting is that while Murphy would apologize (somewhat) for his anti-gay routines decades later, Hope immediately apologized after using a gay epithet on TV — no defensiveness about the leftist Twitter mob, either — and filmed a PSA for GLAAD.
Hope had been frozen out of the Reagan White House years earlier, though, over his public support for federal gun control laws, as well as a gun registry, which gun lovers still insist is the first step toward tyranny. After both Reagan and Pope John Paul II were shot in 1981, Hope told the Washington Post, “I’m for gun registration. I don’t think any jerk that’s coked up or anything should be allowed to walk in a store and buy a gun and turn around and shoot 19 people, you know?”
Reagan was the asshole who’d gotten shot in the first place and he still cut ties with Hope over this very reasonable position.
This reinforces the power the gun lobby had asserted over the Republican Party by the 1980s. The gun lobby and the religious right (a match made in Republican Jesus heaven) had helped elect Reagan, so while Hope was once a welcome guest at the White House during previous administrations, both Democratic and Republican, the Oval Office doors were no longer open to him. Even Vice President George H.W. Bush, who formally resigned from the NRA in 1995, backed away from Hope when he still had presidential ambitions.
Barry Goldwater, like so many Never Trumpers today, recognized the monster he’d created or at least enabled. In September 1981, he said, “I don’t like the New Right … What they’re talking about is not conservatism.” He called “the religious factions that are growing throughout our land … a divisive element that could tear apart the very spirit of our representative system, if they gain sufficient strength.”
Goldwater agreed with Hope on gay rights, as well: “The big thing is to make this country, along with every other country in the world with a few exceptions, quit discriminating against people just because they’re gay. You don’t have to agree with it, but they have a constitutional right to be gay.”
But his 1994 warning is sobering in its prescience: “Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the [Republican] party, and they’re sure trying to do so, it’s going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise. I know, I’ve tried to deal with them.”
I leave you now with some peak period Hope.
[The Nation / Cracked / Washington Post]
Follow Stephen Robinson on Twitter if it still exists.
Catch SER on his new podcast, The Play Typer Guy.
Did you know SER has his own YouTube Channel? Well, now you do, so go subscribe right now!
Click the widget to keep your Wonkette ad-free and feisty.