As we move closer and closer to an election year with no opposition candidates to the president in sight - in the middle of a recession and the war in the gulf - it is a good time to reflect on another presidential election year.
Back in 1940, as the nation reeled from the effects of the Great Depression and teetered on the brink of war, Franklin D. Roosevelt prepared to run for a third term. As Gary Coville pointed out in a fascinating recent article in American History Illustrated, the country was primed for a distraction.It came in the form of a light-hearted run for the presidency by the better half of the George Burns-Gracie Allen comedy team. Since George Burns at 95 is still at the top of his game, Gracie Allen's quixotic run is especially interesting.
Although Allen died of a heart attack in 1964, her imprint on comedy was distinct much earlier.
Allen announced on the radio one March evening that she intended to run for the presidency representing a third party, the "Surprise Party," so-called because her father was a Democrat, her mother a Republican and Gracie herself had been born a Surprise.
Gracie's bid for office was conceived as a simple radio gimmick that would die quickly.
Burns remembered it this way: "Gracie and I were spending a quiet evening at home when she suddenly remarked, `I'm tired of knitting this sweater. I think I'll run for president this year.' "
Gracie appeared on other radio programs to get her campaign off the ground. On the Texaco Star Theatre she was asked with which party she was affiliated. She heatedly responded, "I may take a drink now and then, but I never get affiliated."
She was the only candidate who took pride in the national debt. "It's the biggest in the world, isn't it?"
In fact, she was so impressed by the $43 billion owed by the government that she proposed depositing the entire amount in a "safe" bank at two percent interest.
When she was asked about the Neutrality Bill pending before Congress, she shot back, "If we owe it, let's pay it."
Asked if she would recognize Russia, she answered without hesitation, "I don't know. I meet so many people . . ."
Because 1940 was a leap year, the mascot chosen by the Surprise Party was the kangaroo, with the slogan, "It's in the bag." Gracie also pioneered a sew-on campaign button to discourage her supporters from changing their minds in midstream.
In a country starved for entertainment, Gracie's candidacy caught fire, and peaked when the citizens of Menominee, Mich., a town of 10,000, elected her mayor. She was immediately disqualified from assuming the office on the grounds that a non-resident could not legally serve as mayor.
Gracie's response was "A person can't live everywhere."
On May 9, 1940, Gracie, George and their entourage staged a whistle stop campaign trip from Hollywood Station to Omaha, to coincide with the celebration of Omaha's Golden Spike Days. The train made more than 30 stops, including Salt Lake City.
Gracie forthrightly referred to her platform as "redwood trimmed with `nutty' pine," which included provisions like these:
1. Put Congress on a commission basis. Whenever the country prospered Congress would get 10 percent of the additional take.
2. Extend Civil Service to all branches of government, because "a little politeness goes a long way."
Gracie Allen made a historic run only 20 years after women had been constitutionally permitted to vote in a national election. She said, "The Constitution doesn't say anything about the `he' or `him'; it refers only to `the person to be voted for.' And if women aren't persons, what goes on here?"
Even though FDR won re-election, Gracie Allen brought vigor and good humor to an otherwise predictable race.
So if we can't come up with a single bona fide candidate to oppose George Bush next year, where is the token candidacy that we so badly need? How about Jay Leno? Or Murphy Brown?