Stephen Colbert's mock exploration of a presidential run this year was not the first time a comedian satirically sought the highest office. Will Rogers, Eddie Cantor, and Pat Paulsen were among the others.
But of all the aspiring leaders, Gracie Allen was my favorite comedic candidate. Gracie, along with her partner and husband George Burns, made up one of the most successful comedy teams of all time. Gracie's character had a unique mind filled with what George called illogical logic.
Writing for Gracie wasn't easy. One day in 1940 the writers were trying to come up with an idea about how Gracie might spend some spare time. One of the writers noted that she had done everything except run for president. George immediately loved the idea.
In real 1940 politics, President Franklin Roosevelt was running against Wendell Wilkie. When Gracie entered the race she said that she'd been laughing at presidential candidates for years and so decided she should run herself. She declared herself the candidate of the Surprise Party. After all, she noted, her father was a Republican, her mother was a Democrat, and she had been born as a surprise. Her campaign slogan was "Down With Common Sense. Vote for Gracie."
Audiences reacted so well to the idea that the writers decided to continue the gag for a few more shows. Suddenly, though, the success was such that the publicity stunt took on a life of its own. The Union Pacific Railroad donated a campaign train for her to ride to Omaha for a convention. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt invited Gracie to Washington. A campaign song was born. At her first press conference, Gracie promised to settle the simmering border dispute between California and Florida. When asked about the Neutrality Bill, she asserted that we should pay it if we owe it.
Thousands of people greeted Gracie at each stop the train made. There were parades. When babies were thrust in front of her, she claimed she wanted to wait until the male babies reached twenty-one before she kissed them. The nominating convention was held on May 17th. Eight thousand fans were there to greet Gracie. She told them she didn't want a vice-presidential running mate because she didn't want any vice on the ticket. After the convention, Harvard University announced that it was endorsing her. The reaction of President Roosevelt, a Harvard alumnus, was not recorded.
Gracie received several thousand write-in votes on Election Day. The good people of Menominee, Michigan nominated Gracie for mayor, but they noted that she couldn't serve unless she was a resident. Gracie wrote back complaining about the residence requirement because she couldn't live in two places at once. There were some complaints that Gracie wasn't taking the presidency seriously enough so she made a speech noting that she had meant no disrespect.
There are those observers who claim that some presidential candidates provide enough unintended satire to render professional comedians superfluous. Perhaps, but as Gracie Allen demonstrated, Americans need what comedians always provide: a good laugh and, underneath that, sharp insights about the society.
I wish Gracie were around to run again.