Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Radio ratings are slipping for a pair of married comedians. They are looking for a new gag to hook their audience. Wouldn’t it be hilarious if the wife — A WOMAN — ran for president?!
So started the 1940 presidential campaign of Gracie Allen. Unlike the other women we have highlighted in the Run Like a Girl series here at Nursing Clio, Allen was not a politician or an activist. The Great Depression was nearing its end, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal would reshape domestic policy for decades to come. A second World War was looming — the United States wouldn’t join until late 1941, but it had been raging in Europe for one year and in Asia for three — and US foreign policy was wrapped up in questions of how much to assist allies like Great Britain while remaining officially neutral. The stakes were high for the presidential election, which pitted Democrat FDR against Republican Wendell Wilkie. And here came George Burns and Gracie Allen, with a publicity stunt that underscored the utterly ridiculous notion that a woman could lead the United States.
Gracie Allen’s career was built on being the goofy sidekick. She started out her show business career on the vaudeville circuit in an Irish dancing act with her sisters. An auspicious meeting with George Burns in 1922 birthed a comedy act and a marriage; they’d wed in 1926. The basic outline of their act was consistent through vaudeville, radio, and eventually television: Burns played the straight man to Allen’s zany, illogical character. They pretended that these characters were their real personalities, giving the audience insights into their married life. By the late 1930s, The Burns and Allen Comedy Show was one of the most popular radio shows in America; by the time Allen ran for president, she would have been a household name.
Gags were a big part of their radio act. In a famous gag, Allen spent many shows in 1933 looking for her “missing brother.” She appeared on other radio shows looking for him, and it was so successful her real-life brother George Allen had to go into hiding from the public until the joke ended.1
For Burns and Allen, the presidential campaign was another publicity stunt, which continued over the course of a dozen episodes of their radio show. It started with George telling Gracie that he’s seen signs and billboards “all over town” with her name. “What does this mean?” he asks. “Well, George, I’ll let you in on a secret. I’m running for president.” “Gracie, how long has this been going on?” “Well, 150 years, George Washington started it.” Allen’s sweet voice conveyed the absurdity of his questions. “Gracie,” Burns continued, “why are you running for president?” “Because that’s the only way you can get to the White House. You can’t just walk in and sit down.” Her husband tried to convince her she was crazy. “The idea is preposterous…You don’t stand a chance, presidents are born!” “Well what do you think I was, hatched?”
From the start, Allen being a woman was a key part of the routine. “There’s nobody who would be any happier about your success than I’d be. But in the entire history of the United States there’s never been a woman president,” Burns told Allen. “But yeah, isn’t that exciting? I’d be the first one!” Allen happily replied. As the show continued, Allen revealed how many things she didn’t know about being president — she believed Canada and Mexico would vote for her, and she promised Cabinet posts to friends who chose based on which outfits they wanted. The mascot for her “Surprise Party” was a kangaroo with a joey in her pouch, with the election slogan: “It’s in the bag.”2
Her campaign song says it all:
In an election year where things are so bad, where the politicians don’t know what they’re doing, why not vote for the funny lady on the radio? And while you’re at it, pick up some Hinds Honey and Almond lotion, the sponsor of their radio broadcast. On their 34-city whistlestop train tour, Allen and Burns crossed the country and Allen published a book called How to Become President. Despite not appearing on a single ballot, she did receive a couple thousand write-in votes. Though she never meant to win, she brought laughs to an election with a lot riding on it.
In 2015 when Donald Trump rode down the escalator of Trump Tower and announced he was running for president, many thought it was yet another publicity stunt in his long career in the spotlight. Trump built his name not on actual real estate success, but through branding and his reality TV show The Apprentice. Many pundits early on wondered if this campaign was a way to sell Trump steaks or suits or books. However, the last year and a half have showed that we’re not living in the same world as Gracie Allen. Trump’s campaign managed to actually win the Republican nomination and as we head into fall, there is a real chance that a reality TV star and self-proclaimed billionaire could be in the White House next January. Speaking for myself, I’d probably rather let Gracie Allen paddle Uncle Sam’s canoe. It’s clearer that hers is an act.
Richman, Joe. “Remembering Gracie Allen’s White House Run.” All Things Considered. NPR. November 4, 2008.
Simon, Scott. “Gracie Allen’s ‘Surprise’ White House Run.” Weekend Edition. NPR. October 30, 2004.
Bailey, Greg. “Psst! Hillary. Gracie Allen Has Some Free Advice on Running for President.” History News Network. July 23, 2016.
- “Gracie Allen Biography,” Biography.com, last updated January 21, 2016, accessed September 14, 2016. Return to text.
- Twelve episodes of the radio show covering the presidential campaign stunt are available for streaming on the Internet Archive. Quotations come from the “Government Jobs” episode. Return to text.
- “Vote for Gracie,” History in Music, June 15, 2010, accessed September 14, 2016. A recording can be found on Youtube. Return to text.