Wireless Women, Clueless Men: Gracie Allen, Presidential Candidate

Well, are you ready to tap your toes to the “The Cabinet Shuffle,” sing “The Tory Blues” or stand up for the “Thatcher Anthem”? That’s right, the Iron Lady is back in business. Show business, that is. Thatcher: The Musical is going on tour. Now, as someone who enjoys representing the past (albeit a past I have never experienced as present until its “now” turned to “then”), I don’t seem to be in a position to throw mossy stones. No, I’m not going to argue, as you well might, that the producers of this show are about two decades too late.

Dwelling in the half-forgotten and digging up the misremembered, I am not among those who opine that there is nothing older than yesterday’s news. A musical review of such faded headlines strikes me as being decidedly more quaint and questionable. The only contemporary touch appears to be the politically correct or overly cautious disclaimer attached to the announcement: the show’s producers aim at being “entertaining and provocative,” yet insist that the “politician’s lasting legacy” is being neither “glorified nor denigrated.” Too recent for revisionism, too tired for satire?

I’d much rather join a chorus of “Vote for Gracie.” Now there was a woman ahead of her time—and her man. As early as 1940, Gracie Allen decided to stop knitting sweaters and run for President instead. To the comic relief of millions of New Deal weary Americans, she ran so fast and so wild that her husband and comedy partner, straight man George Burns, could not possibly keep up with her, let alone keep her down.

“I admit that the election of the first woman would let the country in for a flood of corny jokes,” Gracie remarked (in a slim volume you may read online in its entirety). That does not have to be a deterrent, to be sure. Besides, many of those very jokes were told on the Burns and Allen Program, on which Gracie’s campaign started in February 1940.

The vaudeville routine of Burns and Allen was beginning to sound rather creaky; ratings were crumbling, sponsors grumbled. Soon the husband and wife banter would make way for a novel concept in radio comedy—the sitcom. Before their program was thus reinvented in 1942, Burns and Allen were trying to reinvigorate the old formula by heightening Gracie’s nuttiness, by adding currency and topicality to their gags, and by developing a running joke that would encourage repeat listening. The “Vote for Gracie” campaign was such an attempt to salvage their act.

“You’re, you’re running for President?” an incredulous George Burns burst out when he first learned about his wife’s political ambitions on the 28 February 1940 broadcast. “Gracie, how long has this been going on?” “For a hundred and fifty years,” Gracie retorted, “George Washington started it.” To George the whole idea was “preposterous.” “Not only that,” Gracie added, “it pays good money.”

A clever idea it turned out to be—or a quick fix for the ailing show, at any rate. Soon, Gracie was where she’d always been: all over the place. Spreading her outlandish ideas about democracy, the ditzy candidate got to promote the Burns and Allen act on a number of other high-rated radio programs, including those hosted or headlined by fellow vaudevillians Edgar Bergen, Rudy Vallee, and Jack Benny.

At least Roosevelt’s opponents, candidates like Republican Thomas F. Dewey and Democrat John Nance Garner had “political affiliations,” George cautioned. “Well,” replied Gracie undeterred, “maybe that’s because they weren’t vaccinated.” “Have you got a Republican or Democratic machine in back of you?” George cautioned. “No,” Gracie replied nonchalantly, “that’s a bustle.”

Today’s critics, listeners like Leah Lowe, label Gracie’s antics “transgressive,” which is the academy’s validation of playfulness (and of our engagement with it). “One of the greatest problems today is about the people who would rather be right than be President,” Gracie explained in her startling and disarmingly frank simplicity (as it expresses itself in the aforementioned book outlining her campaign). “I have a solution for that. You can be Left and President: that way you can eat your cake and halve it too. Or you can stay in the middle of the road and get run over.”

“Mr. Roosevelt has been President for eight years,” Gracie went on reasoning in her signature non sequitur and pun-driven unreasonableness,

I’m sure he wouldn’t mind getting up and giving his seat to a lady. That old saying about not changing horses in the middle of the stream is ridiculous, when you remember that people have been changing babies in the middle of the afternoon for years and everybody takes it for granted.

Being oracular, the oratrix declared that

women are getting very tired of running a poor second to the Forgotten Man, and with all the practice we’ve had around the house the time is ripe for a woman to sweep the country. I’ll make a prediction with my eyes open: that a woman can and will be elected if she is qualified and gets enough votes.

It sure worked for a lot of clueless men, even those who, unlike Gracie, didn’t have a “Surprise Party Platform” to stand on.

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