How Woke Bob Hope Got Canceled by the Right

How Woke Bob Hope Got Canceled by the Right

How Woke Bob Hope Got Canceled by the Right

The conservative comedian spoke out for gay rights and gun control, and got boycotted and ostracized by friends on the right, including Ronald Reagan.

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On April 3, after Bud Light named trans TikTok star Dylan Mulvaney a spokesperson, Kid Rock responded with a video showing him firing an automatic rifle at a stack of Bud Light beer cases. Country star Travis Tritt announced that he was dropping the beer from his tours, and several conservative social media personalities launched a boycott of the brand. In Tennessee, the state legislature recently banned drag queen shows but, after the Covenant Baptist School shooting, expelled two Black legislators for protesting gun violence with demonstrators. And last month, the Republican Party of Texas censured GOP Representative Tony Gonzalez, whose district includes Uvalde, Tex., for backing bipartisan gun safety laws and protections of same-sex marriage laws.

These tactics are nothing new. Since the mid-1970s, when gun and homophobic extremists found a home in the Republican Party, they have tried to silence their opposition through censorship, de-platforming, and boycotts. And one of their first targets for repeated cancellation was— of all people—Republican icon Bob Hope, a comedian who (unlike today’s generation of streaming comics) did not think it was his job to offend anyone. In 1977, gospel singer Anita Bryant fronted the noxious Save the Children campaign in Dade County, Fla. A forerunner to Governor DeSantis’s Don’t Say Gay bill, Bryant’s homophobic crusade sought to roll back gay rights and anti-discrimination legislation, with the chief aim of banning gay people from teaching school. And like her modern-day Florida descendants in the art of right-wing gay panic, Bryant routinely lied about the gay community, linking it to pedophilia. “Some of the stories I could tell you of child recruitment and child abuse by homosexuals would turn your stomach,” she claimed.

Hope, Johnny Carson, and any number of comics ridiculed Bryant’s bigotry, but with Hope it was personal, as it also was for Bryant. By then, his oldest daughter, Linda Hope, had come out to him and moved in with her partner. She worked with her father at NBC, and continued to do so over the long span of his career. Hope had known Bryant since they both had performed in USO shows in Vietnam. Despite their friendship, Hope began making Bryant jokes in his act. The jokes were his usual lightweight jabs: “They’re naming a street after Anita Bryant in Miami. Of course, it’s one-way.”

After a few months of this, the religious right boycotted him. “The Associated Press reported that comedian Bob Hope had been asked by Texaco to stop making jokes about me and ‘gay’ liberation,” recalled Bryant in her memoir, At Any Cost. “Here was a case of the silent masses voicing protest. This is the first instance of a type of boycott by concerned Americans and Christians that had come to my attention.”

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Hope told Larry King. Unlike Carson, whose Tonight Show had multiple sponsors, Hope had only one: Texaco. “They say to me, ‘Bob can’t you let up on this a little? It’s a very touchy subject.’ Well, of course I can’t because I work on topical humor.” After Save the Children’s 1977 victory in Dade County, the issue ceased to be topical, and Hope stopped (for a while). In a later interview about gay rights, headlined “Why I Don’t Agree With the War on Homosexuals,” Hope didn’t mention his daughter, but he emphasized his firm support of gay rights. “We’re all entitled to our own sexual habits,” he said.

I believe what these people do behind closed doors is their business…. Most of us today are aware of Anita Bryant’s stand on homosexuals…. I still think jobs should be based on talent, not whether a person is homosexual or heterosexual.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan made it to the White House with the support of the religious right and the gun lobby. Despite all the jokey Old Hollywood campaign photo ops that featured Hope and Reagan together, their relationship was friendly but impersonal. As Hope biographer Richard Zoglin wrote, “Though they had known each other for years, Hope and Reagan were not especially close, and Hope didn’t enjoy the kind of inner-circle access that he had during the Nixon administration.”

This became abundantly clear in May 1981. After President Reagan and Pope John Paul II were shot by would-be assassins that spring, Hope came out for gun control in a radio interview with ABC News. He saw gun control as a deterrent to crime, pointing out that John Hinckley Jr. had been stopped by Tennessee police during a visit by President Carter. “I think the violence today is a concern of every citizen and I am now for gun control,” he told ABC. “When I see President Reagan again, I’m going to talk with him about that because I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t have gun control.” Hope told Tom Shales ofThe Washington Post, “I’m for gun registration. I don’t think any jerk that’s coked up or anything should be allowed to walk in a store and buy a gun and turn around and shoot 19 people, you know?” He emphasized he still supported gun ownership—so long as it was regulated. “And what the hell, hunters can have their guns, they’re registered. I’ve got a gun in each house for a warning thing; that can be registered.” “A handgun in each house?” asked Shales. “Yeah. What’s wrong with that?” replied Hope. “They gotta tell me what’s wrong with having them registered. That’s all I wanna hear.”

In short order, Hope got frozen out by the Reagans. As soon as Hope’s ABC radio interview aired, he found that Vice President George H.W. Bush, visiting West Point the same day Hope taped a special there, had no time to talk to him. At a luncheon in Washington that same week, Hope planned to sit with Nancy Reagan, but she canceled at the last minute. As for getting in to see Reagan himself, not a chance. Their friendship was conditional, and one of those conditions was not riling the NRA or any other significant faction of the emerging Reagan coalition. For Hope, who had grown used to strolling into the Oval Office to chat with presidents, finding himself persona non gratis at the White House, even for a short spell, had to drive home the costs of speaking his mind.

He had plenty of other reminders in the decade to come, particularly around the issue of gay rights. Bigots lashed out at him for supporting it, while gay rights activists criticized his casual use of words like “fairy” and “queen.” But his response was a far cry from comedians of our own era who have adopted a MAGA-world never-apologize, never-back-down stance. While Reagan himself almost never uttered the word AIDS, Hope joined AIDS activist Elizabeth Taylor in Scottsdale, Ariz., to cohost a “Gift to Life” benefit in February 1986 for American Foundation for AIDS Research and the Arizona AIDS Fund Trust. The Los Angeles Times estimated that the event, with actor George Hamilton playing auctioneer for a collection of Arabian stallions, raised about $800,000.

But whatever goodwill he earned from the gay community then was quickly squandered at a July 4 appearance with Ronald and Nancy Reagan at the Statue of Liberty. There he told possibly the worst joke of his career: “The Statue of Liberty has AIDS. They don’t know if she got it from the mouth of the Hudson or the Staten Island ferry.”

Hope understood immediately how badly the joke landed and apologized. He never apologized to Bryant. Rather than double down and devote a half-hour of his next special to how his critics were the real bigots, or whining about all the words he cannot say anymore, Hope sought to make amends. A month after the Statue of Liberty scandal, Hope joined with Taylor and California Democratic Senator Alan Cranston to oppose Proposition 64 on the 1986 California ballot—a measure promoted by Lyndon LaRouche that would designate AIDS as a communicative disease, with the aim of quarantining AIDS patients from schools and workplaces. While many opposed the bill, LaRouche singled out Hope and Taylor, and branded Hope’s opposition the “endorsement of death.”

Still, in 1989, in his mid-80s, Hope used the word “fag” on The Tonight Show. GLAAD immediately asked for a statement apologizing for the slur. Instead of telling them to get a sense of humor and calling them snowflakes, Hope shocked them by creating an original PSA for the organization on gay-bashing. Taped at his own expense, he gave it to GLAAD with permission to run it as much as they liked. “It was pretty extraordinary. We can’t even get progressive artists to do that,” Karin Schwartz, a GLAAD deputy director, said when it was announced.

It also could well be the last known instance of a Republican, or a comedian, apologizing in the culture wars. Hope died in 2003. At his funeral, members of the Westboro Baptist Church protested with fliers that read “Bob Hope is burning in Hell!” and “God hates Hope for supporting the sinful sodomite GLAAD agenda.”

Lucky to the end, Bob Hope just missed out on seeing the beginning of the extreme culture wars of the modern era.

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