When “Funny” Throws Its Hat Into The Political Ring

FAMOUS PEOPLE, When “Funny” Throws Its Hat Into The Political Ring

I was rarely the “pool” photographer during political campaign seasons. Those coveted spots are usually assigned to the staff photographers of the major news outlets. They travel with the candidate in the motorcade and are generally granted closer access resulting in better photo opportunities. At least that is the conventional thinking.

In the days when news organizations’ budgets were bigger, those major news outlets (The Associated Press, The New York Times, etc.) would hire freelance photographers like me as support for their staffers during campaign stops. I would carry out tasks like taking their film, processing and captioning a couple of their best images and a couple of mine and transmit them. With shrinking budgets and advances in digital cameras, those types of assignments went away. Now, staffers can have an image into newsrooms around the country or their editor’s computer long before the event is even over.

I liked being the support photographer. I had credentials which gave me access to most places but also the freedom to explore photo possibilities without fear that I would miss “THE” shot because I wasn’t right with the candidate.

One of the best opportunities to “explore photo possibilities” came in June 1996 during the Clinton-Dole presidential campaign. Sen. Bob Dole was on a campaign swing through southwest Missouri and was to overnight in Branson, Missouri the country music tourist mecca. I parked myself at the hotel where Sen. Dole was to stay. A couple of hundred tourists had gathered on one side of the parking lot and a handful of local VIP supporters were in a roped off holding pen on the other side.

Tucked in among the VIPs, I decided this was the best bet for a close encounter with the senator. But, across the lot in the tourist sector there seemed a slight disturbance. An older gentleman holding a sign on a stick was talking excitedly to a couple of younger men in suits who were in turn talking up their sleeves. This could only mean one thing: There was an incident and the Secret Service was involved. I was on the move to see what this was about.

Pat Paulsen asks Sen. Bob Dole to talk

1960’s comedian Pat Paulsen holds a sign asking Sen. Bob Dole to talk during a 1996 presidential campaign stop. (Copyright John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES.com)

The issue was not his sign that read, “Bob, Let’s Talk…Pat.” It was the stick on his sign. The Secret Service has a “no sticks” rule when you…anyone, including media…are near a candidate. Sticks of the literal kind like the one on the sign and “sticks” of the tripod kind that photographers use, are banned when in striking distance of the president, vice-president or wannabes.

While the agents were insisting the stick be removed and the man was proclaiming his rights as a citizen, the mood didn’t seem particularly tense. In fact, I thought I could detect suppressed grins on the normally stony faced Secret Service agents.

Who is, “Pat”?

Then it hit me. Pat was the “Pat Paulsen for President” from the 1960’s through the 1990’s. He was a semi-regular on  Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In and a regular on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour that earned him an Emmy in 1968.

I stood back and watched as Pat obediently removed the stick and handed it over to the agent who retreated from the scene. Pat continued with his stick shtick to the delight of the tourists within earshot.

I called out, “Pat…Pat…Pat Paulsen.”

He looked at me and pointed to the bling of media credentials and cameras hanging around my neck and said, “You’re with the press! I need to talk to you.”.

Before he could get started, I urged him to come stand with me in the VIP section explaining that Sen. Dole might work (shake hands) the tourist crowd but would for sure work the VIP area where the moneyed donors were penned up.

For the next couple of hours Pat, his wife Noma and I stood and waited for Sen. Dole to arrive. We talked about his past television experiences and when I asked him about his almost 30 year campaign for president, the straight-faced and never out of character Paulsen said, “I am a serious candidate.” That might not be too far from the truth since he did end up on several states’ primary tickets.

Pat Paulsen and Bob Dole in stare down.

Comedian and tongue-in-cheek presidential candidate Pat Paulsen engages in a stare down with 1996 for real presidential candidate Sen. Bob Dole. (Copyrighted by John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES.com)

Finally, the motorcade arrived, the senator stepped out, waved to the tourists and was ushered over to the VIP section. Upon seeing Pat, Sen. Dole said, “Hello. They told me you were in the crowd.” With that, the two assumed sort of “stare down positions” like two boxers sizing each other up at the weigh-in.

Sen. Bob Dole says, "I don't really know what to say."

After a few moments of staring at each other in silence, Sen. Dole turns to me and says, “I don’t really know what to say.” (Copyrighted by John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES.com)

The senator showed he was no match for the king of deadpan when Dole broke the silence turning to me (for whatever reason) and said, “I don’t know what to say.” The two then joked and talked for a few more minutes and called it an evening.

After the stare down ran its course, the normally deadpan Paulsen and usually subdue Dole share a laugh. Paulsen's wife, Noma is at far left. (Copyrighted by John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES.com)

After the stare down ran its course, the normally deadpan Paulsen and usually subdue Dole share a laugh. Paulsen’s wife, Noma is at far left. (Copyrighted by John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES.com)

Pat provided much-needed comedic relief during sometimes tense election seasons. For me, he provided an evening of entertainment for what is usually a tiring several hours of standing around. We communicated a couple of times after these photos were taken and I sent him the one of  them staring at each other. Unfortunately, Pat passed away from cancer less than a year later.

His gentle humor is missed in a time when so much humor has a sting to it.

John S. Stewart