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LIVE FROM THE HEADLINES

Celebrating the Life of Bob Hope

Aired July 28, 2003 - 20:01   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: He says he left England at the age of 4, when he found out he couldn't be king. Maybe Bob Hope would have had some irony back then in the fact that he went on to be crowned in America as one of the country's favorite entertainers, a favorite, too, of the country's leaders.
President Ford once joked that Bob Hope was the only man who could say his favorite bed and breakfast in Washington was the White House.

Douglas Brinkley is a presidential historian. He joins us this evening.

Always good to see you. Welcome.

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Thank you.

ZAHN: Let's talk a little bit about some of the interviews you've done with Bob Hope. You recently had the opportunity to talk with him. What did he tell you?

BRINKLEY: Well, no, I recently got to talk with Gerald Ford in Rancho Mirage, Paula, about Bob Hope. I'm doing a little book on President Ford. And we talked for a total of four hours.

And part of it was talking about the golf partnership and friendship between Gerald Ford and Bob Hope. Bob and Dolores and Gerald Ford and Betty are kind of a foursome out there in the Palm Desert-Rancho Mirage area. And he had a lot of stories about Hope, including what he said was his favorite golf game, President Ford said, was when Jackie Gleason and Bob Hope each went with him, and they bet 1,000 bucks cash per hole.

And they would pay on the spot. And he said that that banter was the greatest day of his life, just hearing Hope and Gleason unplugged.

ZAHN: Though Bob Hope himself also once said: Golf is my profession. I tell jokes to pay my green fees.

In the end, was it the game of golf that was the glue between him and all of these presidents?

BRINKLEY: Well, it was a lot of things. Bob Hope, during World War II, started -- became one of the great morale boosters for the allied cause. There are some moments in his career people don't realize. Like in 1944, he went to Madison Square Garden and was asking for help for Jewish refugees of the Holocaust. That's as early as '44. In 1948, Bob Hope was there to help in the Berlin airlift with President Harry Truman. And Truman played piano for him. And he forged these very special relationships. With every president, it was a little different.

Somebody like Richard Nixon, he kind of embraced when Nixon was vice president during the Eisenhower era. And they had an extraordinary correspondence back and forth. And he gave Nixon a great morale boost during the Watergate period. People like John F. Kennedy, Kennedy gave him the Congressional Gold Medal. Lyndon Johnson gave him the Medal of Freedom. His 75th birthday was -- Jimmy Carter oversaw it.

So every -- Bill Clinton had -- gave him the Medal of the Arts. Every president has their Bob Hope stories. But, clearly, he was closest to Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

ZAHN: You said that he gave some moral support to President Nixon while he held the office. How did Bob Hope change in any way the perception of the American public had of then President Nixon?

BRINKLEY: Well, first off, during the Johnson-Nixon years, or, if you like, during our Vietnam War period, he kind of tried to bring people together by going to Vietnam and rallying the troops and having his USO shows. He was sort of the smiling face on a very difficult situation.

But he was always there, in a way, I think, like Reverend Billy Graham, of offering counsel. Part of it was being able to play on the same field, if you like. He was so high and such a big celebrity, he could really tease somebody like President Nixon. And so when Nixon was in a bleak, dark mood, Bob Hope would be there to give him reassurance, to give him a joke, to write him that little note and try to help him.

And, also, there is one letter that he wrote during the Watergate period, saying: Look, this will pass. Don't worry about Watergate so much. Keep on going.

I think there is a bit -- something there, the fact that Hope was a Republican, of course, which made him very popular with Republican presidents, but also that whole Southern California triangle between, if you like, San Clemente, Los Angeles, Hollywood and Palm Springs area. This is the natural terrain of a lot of presidents. Gerald Ford is retired there. Nixon was from that area, Ronald Reagan. And Hope lived in their community and became somebody who they enjoyed having dinner with, talking with and particularly golfing.

The Bob Hope Golf Classics, you always had to come to. And Gerald Ford told me a story. There is a wonderful photograph of Clinton, Bush, Ford and Hope playing golf. And President Bush -- the senior, this is -- did not want to play golf with Clinton, so Hope kept it from him and never told him Clinton would be arriving, so he could arrange to have them all there.

How many people do you know can start having a sitting president, two former ones and manipulate them around to play in a golf game with you and get away with it? Bob Hope had that kind of credential, due to his decades upon decade of patriotism, love of country, and good humor.

ZAHN: And do you think it because of the great status he received working on the USO, that he had the latitude to also poke fun at these presidents that he was close to?

BRINKLEY: Well, that's it.

Remember, if you really look at the USO shows, what would he do? You would have a massive crowd of American soldiers, all waiting for the entertainment. He would run a Vaudeville show with pretty women or sports stars or music. But, often in his dialogue and monologue, he would start making fun of superior officers, make fun of the general, make fun of the admiral, make fun of the president.

And, of course, when you're a grunt in the U.S. armed forces, you can't do that. So he became an outlet. For one hour, they were in charge. It was Bob Hope and his audience and the superior officers were the butt of the humor. And he was able to get away with that and do it. And, of course, every officer the you talk to in the armed forces loves Bob Hope.

I'm in the city of New Orleans. And in 1997, in May of '97, Bob and Dolores Hope were in New Orleans. And they christened USNS Bob Hope, which was the first of a whole new class of ship. So there's even -- Navy has honored him with a ship. He's that revered.

ZAHN: Well, Douglas Brinkley, we appreciate your sharing some of your stories with us this evening. Always good to see you. Thanks so much for dropping by.

BRINKLEY: Thanks. Thank you, Paula.

And before we moved on, I want to share with you now a quote from Nancy Reagan, whose husband, President Reagan, was very close to Bob Hope. And she wrote today: "Bob Hope was one of our dearest friends for over 60 years. Losing him is like losing a member of the family. Ronnie always said that Bob was one of our finest ambassadors for America and for freedom, spending his lifetime entertaining servicemen and women away from home and overseas, especially in time of conflict."

"The Guinness Book of World Records" lists Bob Hope as the most honored entertainer in the world. Hope said, of those thousands of honors, the Congressional Gold Medal presented by President Kennedy meant the most to him.

What meant the most Hope's fans was his golden wits on the big screen.

I'm joined now by film critic Roger Ebert in Chicago. Good evening. Thanks for joining us, Roger.

ROGER EBERT, FILM CRITIC: Hi, Paula.

ZAHN: Let's talk about his legacy on film. Are there some movies that stand out in your mind?

EBERT: Well, of course, he was a multimedia star. He starred in Vaudeville. He then went to radio. He went to movies. He went to television. He was a recording artist.

Probably, though, the road movies that he made with Bing Crosby are the most enduring legacy. And, if you really look at that act, you realize that, in a sense, they created Martin and Lewis and the Smothers Brothers. It is the same kind of formula. You have the singer who is the straight man. Then you have the zany comic. And those movies were so joyous and so much fun.

One thing that I found out about them is, Crosby and Hope both liked to have visitors on the set who would stand behind the camera. Usually, sets were closed. But they were both entertainers who liked to work with a live audience and get feedback. And so sometimes, when you look at those movies, you can see them fooling each other unexpected ad-libs. Sometimes, folks told me, they would steal each other's lines, so the other guy was left without anything to say.

Sometimes, they would talk directly to the camera. And sometimes, they seemed to be talking to people who are just off camera. And those might be their friends -- so that you get a sense of live improvisation in those films that is quite unusual for that period or for any period.

ZAHN: Besides Mr. Hope sharing some of the magic of his method with you, did he ever tell you what were some of his favorite films that he had done?

EBERT: He wouldn't mention a film that he liked in particular, at least not to me. I did talk to him once, a pretty long period of time, though, at his 75th birthday, when he got that special tribute from Congress.

But he did love working with Crosby. And he talked about that, and Dorothy Lamour. And, of course, he was famous for always having a beautiful girl in the picture somewhere. Jane Russell was in "Paleface" and "Son of Paleface." And then he toured with beautiful girls in the shows for the troops. And the gag always was that the girl was right there, but just out of reach and Bob never quite scored and he was always kind of a coward. And yet he was a hero inside.

ZAHN: And you talk a little bit about the impact he had on the movie genre. Tell us about the impact he's had on some of the comedians that we enjoy today.

EBERT: Well, he's one of most influential comedians of the 20th century. For example, he created the role of the Academy Award emcee. Before Hope, the emcee was kind of a stuffed shirt. And it was kind of a formal occasion.

And Hope would get up there and he would aim zingers at the celebrities in the audience. And the audience loved that. And the audience at home loved it. And so today, when you see Billy Crystal or Whoopi Goldberg on the Academy Awards, they're doing what Bob Hope invented.

And then, with his monologues, which were always topical. He had a whole lot of writers who would phone in jokes to him based on today's headlines, on the town he was in, on the people who was involved in the appearance he was making, so that each monologue or each act, stand-up act, seemed to be made for that audience. In fact, he told me that the reason he would never work Vegas -- and he was offered a lot of money to work Vegas -- was, they would make him work two shows a night.

And he only wanted to work one show, because he had new material for that show. He did it once. It was fresh. Then, for the next show, he wanted more material.

ZAHN: That wouldn't happen today, would it, with the kind of money they're throwing around in Las Vegas?

Roger Ebert, thanks for helping us celebrate Bob Hope's life tonight.

EBERT: You bet.

ZAHN: Take care, and look forward to hearing some more of your reviews down the road.

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