President William Howard Taft once confided to the actor Francis X. Bushman: “All the people love you and I can’t have even the love of half the people.” Like actors, political humorists have tried to appeal to a broad spectrum of audiences. Early on, Bob Hope decided not to let his own political views intrude on his comedy: “My sponsor was Pepsodent and when I was going to speak for Roosevelt, the sponsor pointed out that Republicans brush their teeth, too.” Hope’s humor, like that of Will Rogers, was intended to be cutting but not spiteful. Despite their jibes, many presidents sought out political humorists and relished their light satire.
Way back in America’s history, journalists, political activists and cartoonists were the primary critics of our country’s leaders. . . . Will Rogers, with his down-home way, made ridiculing political leaders an art form. And that art form has been embraced by America’s humorists ever since.—Bob Hope, 1996
Will Rogers (1879–1935) preceded Bob Hope as his era’s most beloved political humorist. Of Cherokee heritage, Rogers, like Hope, learned his trade in vaudeville and slyly mastered self-deprecation so that his audience would accept his satiric quips. “Will had the warmth and kindness to kindle the infinite spirit of man,” Hope remarked. “I would be grateful to a bountiful destiny if I could truly walk in the path of a man like Will Rogers.”
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Photograph of Will Rogers, 1930. Copyprint. New York World-Telegram and Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (009.00.00) [Digital ID # ppmsca-24365]
Will Rogers. Rogers-isms: The Cowboy Philosopher on Prohibition. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1919. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (010.00.00) (010.00.01) [Digital ID # bhp0010]
Will Rogers. Rogers-isms: The Cowboy Philosopher and the Peace Conference. Stillwater, Oklahoma: Oklahoma State University Press, 1975. General Collections, Library of Congress (010.01.00) [Digital ID # bhp0010_01]
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Needling Those in Power
In this 1960 TV Guide article, Bob Hope summons up the tradition of political humor that preceded him and sums up his own approach to satirizing the nation’s leaders. Like Will Rogers, Hope needled those in power while appealing to the values of his mainstream audience.
Bob Hope. “Bob Hope Declares Open Season on Politicians and Everyone’s Fair Game.” TV Guide, October 22, 1960. Bob Hope Collection, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress (011.00.00) [Digital ID# bhp0011p1] (011.00.01)
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Vaudeville's Tony Pastor
Tony Pastor (1832–1908), known as the “Dean of Vaudeville,” operated variety theaters in New York City from 1865 until his death. In addition to hosting a diverse array of performing talent—singers, dancers, comedians, musicians, magicians, acrobats, and other acts—Pastor’s theater and traveling troupe presented sketches satirizing events and personages in the news from the working-class perspective of his core clientele. Topical sketch comedy continued in variety shows into the television era.
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Comic Relief for President Lincoln
Ohio newspaperman David Ross Locke (1833–1888) created “Petroleum V. Nasby” to comment satirically on politics and life in America from the 1860s through the 1880s. A “Copperhead” during the Civil War—a Northern Democrat who opposed the war—Nasby attracted the attention of President Lincoln (1809–1865), who read his letters, published in pamphlet form, when he was “greatly fatigued, annoyed, or depressed . . . frequently with great relief,” according to artist Francis B. Carpenter (1830–1900).
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“Mr. Dooley” and Theodore Roosevelt
Chicago newspaperman Finley Peter Dunne (1867–1936) created nationally syndicated comic sketches featuring the fictional barkeeper “Mr. Dooley,” who offered in a thick Irish brogue, satirical opinions on the politics and society of the 1890s and early twentieth century. A few days after “Mr. Dooley’s” lampooned review of Theodore Roosevelt’s (1858–1919) bestseller, The Rough Riders, appeared in Harper’s Weekly, Roosevelt invited Dunne to visit. Their subsequent friendship lasted throughout Roosevelt’s presidency and life.
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Finley Peter Dunne. Mr. Dooley’s Philosophy. New York: R. H. Russell, 1900. General Collections, Library of Congress (013.00.00) [Digital ID# bhp0013]
Theodore Roosevelt to Finley Peter Dunne, November 28, 1899. Typescript. Theodore Roosevelt Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (195.00.00) Digital ID# bhp0195]
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