One of the notable figures on the margins of the Vietnam conflict was Bob Hope, famous for his Christmas shows for the armed forces in the war zone, and the television specials subsequently made from them. No doubt, today’s Hollywood stars flew to Afghanistan and Iraq and entertained the troops in Kabul and Tikrit, but nothing approached the scale of Hope’s role as entertainer-in-chief to American troops in South Vietnam for nine straight Christmases starting in December 1964 (and during the Korean and World War II before that).
There are several reasons why not. No war has engaged the American public, emotionally and politically, like the Vietnam War, for one thing. Television networks no longer have the appetite for long variety-type specials that were the money-making end-product of Hope’s shows.
And there was no Bob Hope, with his star stature, and his strong, if ego-feeding, life-risking patriotism.
But in his meticulous new biography Hope, Richard Zoglin narrates how the comedian’s prestige and enormous popularity went from heroic to casualty of the conflict. As the nation’s view of the war shifted from lukewarm support in the “adviser” days of the early 1960s to violent, divisive opposition by the 1970s, so did public perception of Bob Hope, his unique war effort, and his increasingly public support for the war. “The comedian who wanted to be loved by everyone” became “a symbol of the war many people hated,” writes Zoglin, a longtime theater critic of Timemagazine.
To many, the nation’s war had become Hope’s war, and as opposition grew, Hope found it increasingly difficult to sign up other entertainers for his show—Jill St. John, Connie Stevens, and Anita Bryant were among the former participants who later refused. Colleges (though not all) began to cancel his appearances, fearing anti-Hope demonstrations; “Where There’s Death, There’s Hope,” said a leaflet handed out to students arriving for a Hope appearance at the University of Michigan. Perhaps worst, the show’s audience began to boo him, and Hope’s popularity had sunk to such a level that Zoglin cites instances when troops had to be ordered to attend the shows.
In part, Zoglin says, Hope was drawing fire because he had shifted ground from comedian to high-profile political partisan by giving his name to pro-war events such as Richard Nixon’s “National Unity Week,” designed to counter the opposition to the war. He was also becoming more scathing about the “peaceniks.” “One group is fighting for their country and one group is fighting against it,” Hope told one interviewer. “They’re giving aid and comfort to the enemy. You’d call these same people traitors if we declared war.”
He moved in the rarified circles of presidents and top generals, and one of his strongest arguments in favor of the war was that it had been supported by five successive presidents. “What he couldn’t see, however,” notes author Zoglin, “was the political and cultural shift that was taking place in the country, a new skepticism of the nation’s leaders and the military, a questioning of middle class values and Cold War assumptions.” Zoglin quotes Mel Shavelson, one of Hope’s leading writers, as saying Hope “never really understood the public thinking on Vietnam because he rarely discussed the war with anyone below a five-star general.”
In 1971, Hope dropped any pretense of neutrality and worked openly for Nixon’s re-election. Not that he was alone in coming out of the political closet. In their heyday the Hollywood studios had considered politics bad publicity, and stars were barred by contract from public participation in politics. The 1972 presidential campaign removed the last vestiges of that prohibition. Scores of stars led by Warren Beatty and his sister Shirley MacLaine campaigned for the anti-war Democratic candidate George McGovern—though in the end Nixon carried 49 states in a landslide victory.
As sometimes happened, Hope was better than his material: Watergate forced Nixon’s resignation and the end of his political career in 1974. By the end of the Vietnam conflict, Bob Hope himself was also well past his peak, but his was a long, long decline. He lived until 2003—long enough to perhaps realize the extent to which he had been superseded by technology in the business of raising the spirits of troops in harm’s way: Skype to keep them in touch with their families; YouTube to bring Hollywood to the trenches every day of the week. Apps to give access to the Dodgers, to video games, and much more.