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Glorious Godfrey

Here's a great blog post (and video clip) from Dick Cavett about broadcasting legend Arthur Godfrey. I'm just barely old enough to remember the time when Godfrey was on TV two or three times a week. My memory of the guy is almost exclusively of him doing commercials in his ingratiating, ad-lib manner. The only other thing I can recall are a couple of mini-controversies involving the man. He had "discovered" and promoted on his program a popular singer named Julius LaRosa. When LaRosa became a pretty big star, Godfrey impetuously decided not only to fire him but to announce it on the air, much to America's (and Mr. LaRosa's) surprise. I didn't hear that morning on Godfrey's radio show — it was in '53, when I was one year old — but a decade later, people were still talking about it. When Godfrey came on her TV screen, my Aunt Dot would always say, "There's the man who fired Julius LaRosa during a show." Later, Godfrey got into some trouble when, as a pilot who flew his own plane, he "buzzed" an airport tower and was reprimanded and had his license suspended.

There were a number of little incidents like this that suggested Mr. Godfrey was not the nicest man and yet America loved him. When he told them to smoke Chesterfields, they all went out and smoked Chesterfields. The only other performer who had quite that kind of impact (and who also appeared on two or three different shows at a time) was Garry Moore. And like Godfrey, Moore also later died of emphysema and in his last years, regretted all the time he'd spent on TV and radio urging Americans to smoke.

Our old pal Jack Kirby thought performers like Arthur Godfrey were dangerous. When I worked with Jack around 1970, televangelist Billy Graham was particularly influential with much of this country and Jack thought Graham was out there selling an ominous, narrow-minded misinterpretation of Scripture. "Biblical Fascism," Jack called it and he created a villain in one of his comics named Glorious Godfrey, who could get his followers to do darn near anything. It was Jack's answer to his self-asked question, "What if a Billy Graham had the selling power of an Arthur Godfrey?" You can look at certain public figures since then and decide for yourself how prescient Jack was.

Anyway, read Cavett's article and watch the little clip…and take note of what Cavett says about the Nixon Administration forcing him to have on a guest and of using the Internal Revenue Service to screw over its perceived political enemies. You might also want to imagine what folks would say if the Obama Administration ordered some show to have on a government spokesperson…or used the I.R.S. that way. My father, as some of you may know, worked for the I.R.S. back when Nixon was in office and he saw a lot of that kind of thing; of leading G.O.P. campaign donors having huge delinquent tax bills torn up and of extra heat being put on Democrats. A lot of that was exposed and documented during the Watergate investigations but it didn't get as much attention as some of the more colorful revelations of Nixonian wrongdoing.