“Gracie for President!”
Both The Burns and Allen Program and Parks and Recreation explicitly address national and local politics, with leading ladies Gracie Allen and Amy Poehler portraying characters (Gracie and Leslie, respectively) who campaigned for political office. Gracie and Leslie were the two characters who “won” at the end of every show, but were still regarded as irrational. Despite their nonsensical natures, they proved ideal for the world of politics, as both waged relatively successful campaigns and won over naysayers.
In 1940, Gracie announced on-air that she was running for President. The year was a particularly difficult one. America was still staggering through the Great Depression and entry into World War II was imminent. Additionally, Americans were unsure of what to think about any of the presidential nominees. Could Franklin Roosevelt run for an unprecedented third term? Would his Vice President John Nance Garner challenge him? Would Republican Thomas E. Dewey gain his party’s nomination, or would Robert A. Taft steal it from him? And who on Earth was Wendell Willkie? All these questions and more loomed in the minds of Americans, and a comic outlet supplying laughs was much appreciated. So Gracie threw her hat in the ring, and what started out as an on-air joke quickly became an off-air media event with a nationwide train tour, a book written by Gracie entitled How to Become President, and an invitation from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to be a guest of honor at the annual convention of the National Woman’s Press Club in Washington, D.C. The popularity was unexpected, and the seriousness with which the public regarded her campaign was unprecedented.
Gracie’s run for President quickly turned from a silly joke into a serious statement with all the makings of a real campaign. When Burns’s character George first hears about the campaign on the program, he begins asking Allen’s character Gracie about the specifics of her presidential run, assuming she does not know what she is talking about. But her answers reveal that she has all the makings of an actual, though comical, presidential candidate. Gracie knew she needed a political party if she wanted to take the campaign anywhere, and thus created her own party – the Surprise Party. With a party affiliation, she moved onto personal promotion. Gracie actually toured the nation giving her nonsensical campaign speeches and making guest appearances on several radio programs asking other famous characters for their votes. She even had a party mascot – a real live kangaroo – and a corresponding slogan, “it’s in the bag!” But the most important part of contemporary personal promotion, for both the serious presidential candidates and Gracie, was a campaign song. Gracie’s song is a showstopper entitled “Vote for Gracie.” Performed weekly by the program’s band, it is a catchy tune that pleads for votes while poking fun at other nominees. “Even big politicians don’t know what to do,” the song went, “Gracie doesn’t know either, but neither do you!” Gracie had one final addition to make her campaign completely authentic: the promise of political appointments to all of her friends and fellow cast members. From Postmaster General to Secretary of the Navy, The Burns and Allen Program eventually featured several soon-to-be political dignitaries. Clearly, Gracie’s run was comparable to an actual campaign for President. Surprisingly, Gracie was nearly as influential as her more serious political opponents.
[Listen to Gracie's campaign song below]
Of course, most of Gracie’s responses to serious questions were nonsensical. When asked about her feelings on the Neutrality Bill, Gracie responded, “If we owe it, let’s pay it!” Her response to a question about the national debt was simply “let’s be proud of it! It’s the biggest in the world!” But just the fact that Gracie was even confronted with such serious political questions, questions one would expect to be asked of a serious nominee, is relevant. Her responses, though clearly meant to be comical, were not altogether unbelievable. She fit the role of campaigning politician well, as one observer noted, “politics was perfect for Gracie’s particular brand of logical illogic.” Shockingly, some of these illogical responses turned out to be completely correct. When asked about prosperity, Gracie defined it as “when business is good enough so that you can buy the things on credit that you can’t afford anyway and that’s where you can save enough money to pay cash for new things after they’ve taken back the things you’ve got on credit.” Somehow, her ridiculous responses made perfect sense, and illuminated the absurdity of American politics and the American way of life in general.
Gracie commented on what many Americans already believed about politicians – that they did not always mean exactly what they said. Gracie’s clearest acknowledgement of this was in her campaign speech in Dallas, which she opened with, “All promises in this speech are fictitious.” When discussing a particularly revealing evening dress, Gracie proclaimed, “I’m not like the other candidates, I believe in coming right out in the open.” And when George criticized her for incorrect answers to serious questions, Gracie quickly responded “I’d rather be President than right.” Though obviously jokes, Gracie’s comments still made relevant critiques of American political culture. These blatant attacks on traditional political rhetoric and its inherent nonsense, just as previously featured in her campaign song, often earned Gracie the biggest laughs. Americans understood Gracie’s critique all too well and applauded her for publicizing their private worries.
In true political form, Gracie garnered respect by skipping around tough questions and staying relatively moderate. She did this by making fun of both parties. When a visitor came to the studio and proclaimed that he is “Doctor Schmeerbacher, psychiatrist,” Gracie responds, “is that anything like a Republican?” After a long laugh from the audience, the doctor responds with “I know nothing about politics,” to which Gracie retorts, “oh, a Democrat!” The confusion about how to define the Republican party was prevalent in the race for nomination, with New York governor Thomas E. Dewey, Ohio isolationist Robert A. Taft, Old Deal Michigan Senator Arthur Vandenburg, and dark horse Wendell Willkie all disagreeing on virtually every issue but vying for the same Republican party nomination. On the other hand, Democrat Roosevelt had already been in office for eight years, and many Americans with little political knowledge could simply align themselves with an already successful President even if they knew “nothing about politics.” No one was safe from Gracie’s critique, and thus all sides of the argument could relate to her social commentary.
The biggest critic of the campaign, and ultimately the one Gracie made fun of most, was Burns’s character George. He is the first to seriously question the campaign, while all other cast members are enjoying their new political appointments and asking Gracie about her campaign plans. George’s character always serves as the voice of common sense in the studio, where Gracie’s wacky ways are too easily accepted by fellow cast members. George asks Gracie political questions and groans at her hilariously absurd responses to serious queries. But when he asks Gracie about the Fourteenth Amendment, she responds by reciting the amendment in its entirety, to George’s surprise. George quickly re-evaluates his position and eventually becomes a supporter of Gracie, even proclaiming himself campaign manager. When a mysterious stranger suggests that the only thing holding back Gracie’s presidential run is George, the cast takes the advice and attempts to keep George from joining the next campaign trip, ultimately ending with George in the hospital. Even George, the straight man who was meant to question Gracie’s nonsense, quickly aligns himself with the ridiculous campaign so much so that Gracie and the rest of the gang must forcibly remove him. Clearly, Gracie does not need George’s common sense to prevail; in fact, George is reportedly the only problem with the entire campaign.
Newspapers responded just as George did: initial shock followed by serious interest. In a 1940 interview with Gracie in the Daily Boston Globe, a reporter commented that the campaign, originally announced on February 14th, “has turned out to be not as much of a comic Valentine as it was intended. The publicity gag has struck the funnybone of the nation to such an extent that it has run away from its originators.” Although the reporter finds Gracie’s answers hilarious, she also comments that Gracie “didn’t altogether fit that dumb voice of hers.” Americans were smart enough to know that Gracie’s comments were not meant to be taken seriously, and could understand the intellect behind her seemingly illogical responses. Her comments epitomize the genius that made the show hilarious; completely ridiculous responses can somehow make perfect sense, especially in politics.
Gracie’s Surprise Party platform also endorsed some very feminist viewpoints. The campaign itself was revolutionary simply because of Gracie’s gender, but several parts of her platform, though comical, implied female empowerment. Gracie’s speech before the Women’s National Press Club in 1940 began with “I won’t be the first woman President, just the first woman President officially.” She also discusses “men, and why they should be repealed.” Although some comments did poke fun at traditional womanhood – “a woman is much better than a man when it comes to introducing bills into the House” – most stuck to the idea of female empowerment. She even addressed the difficulties of being a woman in a man’s world, complaining about the $3 million campaign budget limit because it costs more to be a woman. After all, “Does John L. Lewis have to pay $3 to get his eyebrows plucked?” Although the campaign was a joke, it did address the inequalities that American women faced, implied the power that women had already clandestinely gained, and offered inspiration through an unlikely female candidate.
[Listen to Gracie's speech at the Women's National Press Club below]
All documentation of Gracie’s campaign ends around May of 1940. The audio is no longer available, but Gracie allegedly stopped the campaign to “step back” and let serious campaigning continue. Although she did not win the election, the amount of support she received is astonishing. Gracie’s unlikely campaign “came along at just the right time to distract listeners from the increasingly dismal state of the real world,” and thus was backed by thousands. Harvard University students gave Gracie their endorsement over alumni and incumbent President Franklin Roosevelt. The Minnesota town of Menominee elected Gracie to be their mayor. Hundreds of thousands of Surprise Party supporters cheered Gracie as she toured America by train. Although this could all easily be taken as a joke, she did garner some serious political support, as “election wardens around the country began to notice her name turning up on primary election ballots, including a grand total of sixty-three votes in Wisconsin.” As for Election Day, Gracie “was given several thousand legitimate write-in votes by citizens who preferred her to either Willkie or Roosevelt.” To at least some Americans, Gracie’s run was more than just a joke, serving as a preferable alternative to more serious, and perhaps less trustworthy candidates.
 Elizabeth McLeod, “Program Guide: ‘Keep Voting All Day Long!’ Gracie Allen’s Race for the White House,” Burns & Allen: Gracie for President (Little Falls, NJ: Radio Spirits, 2008), 2.
 William Carroll, Gracie Allen for President 1940: Vote with the Surprise Party (San Marcos, CA: Coda Publications, 2000), 11.
 McLeod, “Program Guide,” 2.
 The Burns and Allen Show, “Government Job,” aired February 28, 1940, as heard on Burns & Allen: Gracie for President (Little Falls, NJ: Radio Spirits, 2008).
 McLeod, “Program Guide,” 3.
 Ibid., 9.
 Burns and Allen, “Government Job.”
 McLeod, “Program Guide,” 7.
 The Burns and Allen Show, “George’s Malady,” aired May 22, 1940, as heard on Burns & Allen: Gracie for President.
 Burns and Allen, “Government Job.”
 The Burns and Allen Show, “The Biggest in the World,” aired April 24, 1940, as heard on Burns & Allen: Gracie for President.
 McLeod, “Program Guide,” 2.
 The Burns and Allen Show, “Gracie’s Triumphant Return,” aired March 13, 1940, as heard on Burns & Allen: Gracie for President.
 Burns and Allen, “George’s Malady.”
 Gracie Allen, “If I Were President,” Daily Boston Globe (1928-1960), May 26, 1940. http://search.proquest.com/docview/839359333?accountid=9758.
 Burns and Allen, “Gracie’s Triumphant Return.”
 Raymond Lahr, “Mrs. Big: Gracie Nominated by Surprise Party,” The Washington Post (1923-1954), May 19, 1940, http://search.proquest.com/docview/151325545?accountid=9758.
 The Burns and Allen Show, “‘Til the Cows Come Home,” aired April 3, 1940, as heard on Burns & Allen: Gracie for President.
 Joe Richman, “Remembering Gracie Allen’s White House Run,” Radio Diaries, November 4, 2008, NPR, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=96588557.
 Carroll, Gracie Allen for President, 14.
 McLeod, “Program Guide,” 4.
 Carroll, Gracie Allen for President, 14.