Bob Hope’s Red Scare

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“Eisenhower admitted that the budget can’t be balanced and McCarthy said the communists are taking over. You don’t know what to worry about these days – whether the country will be overthrown or overdrawn.”

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“I have it on good authority that (Sen. Joseph) McCarthy is going to disclose the names of two million communists. He has just got his hands on the Moscow telephone directory.”

The story

Bob Hope (1903–2003) – who was born in London of an English father and Welsh mother – was one of America’s best-loved comedians. His film, TV, radio and stand-up career spanned several decades. Over that time he certainly told a lot of jokes. By the end of his career the fireproof vault at his California home contained 85,000 of them in filing cabinets.

Hope rarely allowed his own conservative political convictions to seep through, but he was happy send up politicians of every hue. About his weekly radio programme on NBC in the late 1930s, he would later say: “The season ran 39 weeks. It didn’t take long to discover that you couldn’t do 39 weeks of mother-in-law jokes.” He and his team of eight writers studied the newspapers for material. “Whatever you found ludicrous, we zeroed in on. And when it comes to ludicrous, politics is tops.”

Hope was probably the only comic who could get away with being the first to joke about Senator Joseph McCarthy at the height of America’s early 1950s Red Scare.

McCarthy (1908–57) claimed that there were communists and communist sympathisers, not to mention Soviet spies, in the Federal government, the State Department and elsewhere in the country. He was never able to substantiate these claims, but the hysteria was such that even an accusation was enough to ruin the careers of many people. McCarthy’s star only began to fade in 1954 when a series of televised hearings investigating the US Army showed him up for a blustering and dishonest bully.

In his Christmas 1952 TV show, Hope made out he’d had a letter from Santa Claus: “Dear Robert, thank you for … the beautiful new brown suit you sent me … But tell Senator McCarthy I’m going to wear my old red one anyway.”

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This was at the height of McCarthy’s influence, well before he’d been discredited, and Hope was reportedly worried the gag might not go down well with the viewers. He did get some hate-mail accusing him of being a commie, but generally it was well-received, so McCarthy jokes were part of his act from then on. McCarthy himself does not appear to have been unduly bothered by them. In any event, Hope’s jokes – most of them provided by his team of writers – were mild, even by the more conservative standards of 1950s America. None of them were ever nearly as good as his crack about President Harry Truman: “He rules the country with an iron fist – the same way he plays the piano.”