Gracie for President 1940April 2, 2009
Gracie Allen, the female half of the runaway comedy team of Burns and Allen, announced one March evening over the radio her intention to compete for the presidency at the head of a new third party, the “Surprise Party.” Why the Surprise Party? As Gracie later explained, her mother was a Democrat, her father a Republican, and Gracie had been born a Surprise.
Gracie’s presidential bid had originally been conceived as a simple radio gimmick with the expectation of a short half-life. George Burns later recalled its moment of birth: “Gracie and I were at home in Beverly Hills with our children [when she] suddenly remarked, ‘I’m tired of knitting this sweater. I think I’ll run for president this year.'”
The idea wasn’t particularly new. Other radio personalities, notably Eddie Cantor and Will Rogers, had made slapstick runs in the direction of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Gracie’s unique campaign, however, acquired a unique momentum.
To underscore in the public mind the extent of her determination as a presidental candidate, Gracie began making the rounds of other radio programs, frequently bursting in unannounced to offer her views on the burning issues of the day. Delighted listeners never knew when she would pop up; The Texaco Star Theatre, Fibber McGee and Molly, The Jack Benny Program, and even Dr. I.Q., the Mental Banker received visits from the candidate, who then outlined her offbeat political positions with little or no prompting.
When Ken Murray on The Texaco Star Theatreasked with which party Gracie was affiliated, she heartily retorted, “I may take a drink now and then, but I never get affiliated.”
Gracie was the only candidate to encourage the American people to take pride in our national debt, boasting that “it’s the biggest in the world.” So impressed was she with the $43 billion owed by the government that she proposed depositing the entire amount in a “safe” bank at two percent interest.
Queried on the Neutrality Bill pending before Congress, her position was an unequivocal “If we owe it, let’s pay it.”
Allen was a strong supporter of the Dies Committee–“If we didn’t keep [it] going, who’d color our Easter eggs?”
Asked if she would recognize Russia, Gracie showed uncharacteristic hesitation: “I don’t know. I meet so many people….”
And though she was eager to serve the nation as president, Gracie had her limits. “I will make no fire-side chats from the White House between April 15 and October 15,” she declared. “It is asking too much and I don’t know how President Roosevelt stands it. Washington is awfully hot in summer.”
Gracie not only understood the importance of taking positions on the issues; she recognized the importance of symbols. Mascot of the Surprise Party was a kangaroo named Laura (this was, after all, leap year); slogan of the new party–“it’s in the bag”–adopted to demonstrate the level of confidence the candidate had in her campaign (as well as the fact that Laura was a recent mother). Gracie also pioneered the idea of the sew-on campaign button to discourage her supporters from changing their minds in midstream.
Songwriter and close friend Charles Henderson composed the Surprise Party’s campaign song, a modest ditty entitled simply “Vote for Gracie.” Proclaimed one line: “If the country’s going Gracie, so can you.”
Shortly after the series of whirlwind radio announcements of her candidacy, Gracie appeared in Washington, D.C., as quest of honor before the Women’s National Press Club, at the special invitation of Eleanor Roosevelt. While in Washington Gracie unveiled plans for the Surprise Party’s first national convention, to be held in Omaha, Nebraska during May 15 to 18. Gracie conceded that there was a danger in being the first candidate that year to hold a convention in as much as the Republicans would probably double any campaign promises she made and the Democrats were certain to follow behind and redouble the ante. However, she argued, if the other parties thought this would make her vulnerable they were mistaken, for she had some surprises up her sleeve, along-side a box of raisins that she proposed to nibble on while awaiting the election returns.
Returning to California to plan her strategy, await the results of the initial campaign salvos, and incidentally continue broadcasting the Burns and Allen Show,Gracie couldn’t have helped feeling elated with the country’s response to her efforts. The bandwagon effect began in St. Louis with one write-in vote for president; once established, the pattern repeated in Chicago. The wave of growing support crested when the citizens of Monominee, Michigan, a town of ten thousand on the southern tip of the upper peninsula, elected Gracie mayor. She was disqualified from assuming the office, however, on the grounds that a non-resident couldn’t legally serve as mayor. “A person can’t live everywhere,” Gracie remarked philosophically as she continued her bid for the presidency.
Gracie even recieved the endorsement of Harvard University. (This must have been a serious blow to Roosevelt, who was an alumnus of the school.)
During the next couple of months, Gracie’s campaign staff ironed out plans for the Omaha convention. Gracie arranged to whistle-stop all the way from Hollywood to Omaha aboard the same private car used by W. Averell Harriman, chairman of the board for the Union Pacific Railroad. Allen’s campaign dovetailed nicely with Omaha’s annual celebration of Golden Spike Days, a joint venture between Omaha and the railroad.
On May 9, 1940, Gracie, George, and their entourage boarded the campaign special. As the train pulled out of Hollywood Station the whistle played “Vote for Gracie.” Between Hollywood Station and Omaha the Allen campaign train made more than thirty stops, including Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Denver, North Platte, and Cheyenne. Decades later, in his affectionate 1988 tribute to his wife, Gracie: A Love Story, Burns recalled in detail the outpouring of affection and general good cheer the party encountered all along the route.
Upon her arrival in Omaha, the National Broadcasting Company–the Burns and Allen show‘s new network–carried her speech live.
On May 17, 1940, thousands of wildly enthusiastic delegates congregated in Omaha’s Creighton University Stadium to unanimously nominate Gracie Allen for president of the United States. There was no vice-presidential candidate, however; Gracie had warned all along that she would tolerate no vice in her administration.
Gracie forthrightly referred to her platform (“redwood trimmed with ‘nutty’ pine”) as having “such insignificance that future historians may well call it the Magna Carta of the Misdeal.” Her platform ideas, she confessed, had come to her in a dream. Among the key provisions: (1) Put Congress on a comission basis. Whenever the country prospered Congress would get ten percent of the additional take. (2) Extend Civil Service to all branches of government, because “a little politeness goes a long way.”
On election day, November 5, 1940, Franklin Roosevelt collected more than twenty-seven million votes and was re-elected president. Defeated Republican candidate Wendell Willkie recieved some twenty-two million votes. Gracie likely recieved a few hundred write-in votes, at best; no exact figures are available. In retrospect, her campaign had probably peaked in the spring with her Menominee victory and the Omaha convention.
OTHER POSTS ABOUT THE 1940 CAMPAIGN:
- Down With Common Sense
- NPR Remember’s Gracie’s Presidential Run
- Gracie’s Whistle-Stop Campaign
- How to Become President by Gracie Allen
- Surprise Party Platform
Scripts from 1940 Radio Shows: