Richard Zoglin’s Hope: Entertainer of the Century (Simon & Schuster, 565 pp., $30) is a very well written, all-but-authorized biography. With the “generous help and cooperation” of Bob Hope’s daughter Linda, Zoglin has done a fine job telling Hope’s personal and professional stories, offering a good mix of narrative and analysis. Zoglin,Time magazine’s theater critic, does not shy away from pointing out the unpleasant parts of Hope’s life in a book that makes a strong case that he played a seminal role in the development of stand-up comedy.
Zoglin devotes a good amount of the book to Bob Hope’s long and honorable service to the nation by entertaining the troops in World War II and in the Vietnam and Korean Wars. These sections contain much praise, but also highlight the controversial nature of Hope’s work in Vietnam. Hope—who died in 2003 at age 100—never grasped the enormous differences between the American war in Vietnam and the two preceding conflicts, nor did he understand the vast differences in the generations of Americans who fought in those wars.
Hope, a close friend and strong supporter of President Richard Nixon, was a fervent Vietnam War hawk. He “had little understanding of the nuances, say, of whether the United States was trying to repel aggression in Vietnam or intervening in a civil war,” Zoglin writes. Hope, a friend said, “never really discussed the war with anyone below a five-star general.” Yet, Zoglin notes, “Hope wouldn’t temper his hard-line views or stop speaking out about the war.”
His standard reply letter to those who wrote to him criticizing his hawkishness was: “The servicemen over there believe they are doing a necessary job, and they can’t understand the draft-card burning and the anti-Vietnam demonstrations. They wonder if patriotism and love of one’s fellow men have gone out of style.”
By 1970, Zoglin writes, Hope’s “jokes about the counterculture were sounding increasingly smug and out of touch.” After emceeing the Miss World pageant in November of that year, for example, Hope spoke about the women’s liberation activists who disrupted the event, saying, “You’ll notice about the women in the liberation movements, none of them are pretty, because pretty women don’t have those problems. I don’t get it.” To which Zoglin adds: “He clearly didn’t.”
Zoglin describes an almost surreal episode during Hope’s 1971 Christmas trip to Southeast Asia: a secret, private meeting set up by the U.S. Ambassador to Thailand in which Hope and North Vietnamese envoy Nguyen Van Tranh met in Vientiane, Laos, to discuss the POW issue. The two men had cordial talks and agreed to meet again in North Vietnam.
Hope’s effort, Zoglin writes, “came to naught,” after his application for a visa to go to North Vietnam was denied.