January 25, 2023

Hope springs eternal




Last week, in my "What I've Been Watching" piece reviewing Christmas programs, I mentioned Bob Hope's Vietnam Christmas show; it was kind of a tangential follow-up to the TV Guide of January 13, 1968, in which Hope talked about his overseas Christmas trips to entertain American troops, which he had been making since 1941. We skipped over his 1968 show and watched the 1969 edition as our final Christmas program of the season. (Personal choice; Ann-Margret over Raquel Welch.)

People have differing opinions when it comes to Bob Hope; some of them think he's very funny, others not so much. Increasingly, the new generations don't even know who he is. There's no doubt that his humor comes from a different time, and his brand of joke-telling (along with the constant ogling of the beautiful women who populated his guest lineup) might play differently to newer and more tender ears. 

There can be no doubt, though, about two things, One, a historical fact: Bob Hope was, for much of his lifetime, a legend and an American institution. Two, not verifiable but likely: Bob Hope was a proud American, and he cared about the troops he entertained.

For these men, stationed in a foreign country they didn't want to be in and not really sure why they were even there, Hope was a slice of home, a reminder that there was a world other than the swamp they were in. And speaking of that home, a home that seemed to be sliding into a hellish morass with riots and assassinations and antiwar protesters calling them murderers, Hope and his crew provided evidence that there were people back there who remembered them and loved them and couldn't wait for them to come home. A tough reminder in many ways, as it always is for the soldier wondering how much longer an endless war would last, and if they would live to see it; but even a little bit of home is better than none at all. And in a strange country with a strange language, it had to mean something to see a backdrop being assembled, with "The Bob Hope Show" in large letters. That was something they could understand.

There was a moment I particularly enjoyed; although it was corny, it also said much about what these trips were about. Hope mentions in his narration that, prior to leaving on their trip, they'd been given tens of thousands of letters from home, and during the shows he'd call some of those troops up to the stage. There was Gunner’s Mate Jerry Long, for example, whose fiancée had written that she hadn't gotten a letter from him in awhile. Hope invited Long to dictate a letter to her right there on television. “Want to seal it with a kiss or anything? Right there in the camera. Go ahead, she’ll be watching. Go ahead, blow her a kiss. Blow it to the camera.” It was part of Hope's schtick, of course, but there was an intimacy about the way he said it, a humanity to it all, that made clear he viewed these men as more than just an audience. As he would say, "Our merry Christmas is knowing we made theirs a little merrier." I wonder if Jerry Long made it home? I hope so.

Near the end, as a montage of highlights from the trip is shown, Hope turns serious in a voiceover: "Discussions about our posture in Vietnam go on and on. The rights and wrongs of it are being debated and will continue to be debated for years. But one thing is not debatable and that is the contribution our men have made in Vietnam. Their courage, their kindness, their humanity and their sacrifice can never be undone. It’s now part of history. And it is in the finest tradition of America. This was our fifth trip. I never dreamed back in 1964 that we’d go on this long. It takes such a terrible toll."

And then he continues, with something surprisingly blunt. Yes, I know one of his writers probably wrote it for him, but I don't think he would have read it without it echoing his own feelings: "But here we are again, and somewhere along the way the realization hit me that we were trapped in a kind of quicksand, and that there was no end in sight. We were paying too high a price in our greatest natural resource, our youth." Everyone talks about the effect on the war when Walter Cronkite turned against it, the possibly apocryphal story that has Lyndon Johnson saying if he'd lost Cronkite, that was it. But what happens when you lose Bob Hope? It's not like he called for an immediate withdrawal, but he made no pretense that everything was hunky-dory.  

  Ann-Margret strikes an appropriate pose
    for an appreciative soldier
During the tour, Hope and his troupe had entertained 250,000 soldiers. They were "[t]he fighting kids, the wounded kids, the happy kids on their way home. Tough kids and frightened kids, sad kids, and just kids. These are the ones who have it all at stake, the ones who’ll win it all or lose it all. These are the ones who are going to pay the price if we fail. A lot of them have already paid the price." He and the other entertainers spent several minutes talking to injured soldiers on camera (some with Purple Hearts pinned to their pillows), presumably to let their loved ones know they're all right. All the time, their attention was on the men they're talking to, not the camera crew.

Remember that this tour came at the end of 1968, a desperately sad year that offered only a faint hope that things would be better. Richard Nixon, who was president-elect at the time these shows were filmed, had been given a mandate, slim though it may have been, to end the war. But how? It would take another four years for that to happen, and even then, the peace would only be temporary before the Communists accomplished the victory that we'd paid such a high price to prevent. 

It didn't make any sense back then, for those of us who lived through those days (even if we were young at the time), and it seems to make less and less sense as the years go by. For these soldiers, and for us, Bob Hope helped it make sense for at least a few minutes. TV  

2 comments:

  1. This is a wonderful piece and an important reminder that when the histories of these conflicts are written, this is part of the story that should not be forgotten.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, David. I always take your praise seriously on these kinds of pieces.

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Thanks for writing! Drive safely!