The Missourian, the comedian, and a famous political statement

We meant to tell you this story yesterday but news got in the way.

June 5 is the anniversary of one of the most famous and often-quoted and mis-quoted political statements in American history.  It was uttered by a Missourian 130 years ago and when we found a reference to it in William Safire’s Political Dictionary were were immediately reminded of a political satirist named Pat Paulsen.

This is how Pat Paulsen becomes linked to General William Tecumseh Sherman, at least in the mind of a reporter whose thinking has perhaps been warped by forty years of covering the Missouri legislature.

For those too young to know who Pat Paulsen was, let’s just say that he was his generation’s Stephen Colbert.

In a corner of my closet, still in its original mailing tube, is my 1968 “Pat Paulsen for President” poster.  I think it also has my large PPP lapel pin in it.

Enough time has passed since PP died in 1997 that a generation or two of Americans and American politicians don’t know who this man was—and what his relationship is to that famous Missourian William Tecumseh Sherman, he of the march through Georgia fame.

Before Stephen Colbert sought the presidency in 2008 and formed his Super PAC and hit the trail in ’12, Pat Paulsen  was at large.

Pat Paulsen was part of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, a television variety show that was cancelled in the late 1960s because its performers did not hesitate to skewer political leaders in a way that seems quaint in today’s political satire but caused considerable political backlash and disagreements with CBS management which pulled the plug in 1969.  Paulsen was a deadpan comedian who played the role of the poorly-spoken, uncomfortable, not-altogether-there kind of guy, sort of a basset hound in a suit.  The man who wants to be a politician but doesn’t want anybody to know it.

Pat Paulsen’s breakthrough announcement was made in an “interview” with Tom Smothers on the show in ’68.

AUDIO: Paulsen :62

Paulsen continued to lampoon presidential candidates and their campaigns until a year before he died.  You can see a documentary about his presidential quest on Youtube. It’s narrated by Henry Fonda, whose narration is a satire on the self-serving films made for candidates in that era.

Stephen Colbert was only about 14 years old when Paulsen made his first, uh, run.  Only two election cycles went by after Paulsen’s death before he picked up his satirist heritage.

But what does any of this have to do with William Tecumseh Sherman?

General Sherman, who lived in St. Louis–and is buried there—was seen by many people after the Civil War as presidential material, as Americans had seen George Washington almost a century earler as the kind of figure who could lead a nation in peace as well as in war, as Americans saw John J. Pershing after World War I, and Eisenhower after World War II, and Colin Powell after the first Iraq War.  It was the kind of public attitude that made Ulysses Grant the President in the era where the “Sherman Statement” was born.

But Sherman was having none of that.  A buzz at the 1884 Republican National Conveniton was that General Sherman would be a great candidate.  But the blunt-speaking Sherman sent a message on June 5 to Convention Chairman John Brooks Henderson (remind me to tell you someday about this former Missouri Senator, including how he got to be the convention chairman) that has been used in various forms for various purposes all these years since:

“If nominated I will not accept.  If drafted I will not run. If elected I will not serve.”

And unlike generations of candidates or non-candidates since, Sherman meant it.

The statement has been used in various forms many times since Sherman wrote it.  Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas probably thought of it when he spoke even more frankly at a time when some people were suggesting he replace Harry Truman on the 1948 Democratic presidential ticket.  “I ain’t a-runnin,’ and I ain’t goin’ tuh,” he said.

One month from today (July 6) would have been Pat Paulsen’s 87th birthday.   We doubt that anybody has ever gotten more laughs or more mileage out of the “Sherman Pledge” than Pat Paulsen.

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A few folks have had the courage to confess, although not in front of large audiences, that they are readers of these irregular entries which have been even more irregular than usual.  We apologize for failing to more regularly supply pithy, entertaining and/or informative observations in recent days.  We have been severely short-staffed in the Missourinet newsroom and have focused our energies on feeding the on-the-air beast.  The deprivation of the usual wisdom dispensed on these pages is soon to be moderated with the return of Mike Lear from a well-deserved opportunity to live a normal life with normal people–most  notably his wife and five daughters–for several days.

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