With another Hello Dolly! revival premiering on Broadway April 20, Bette Midler now gets to perform one of the greatest American musical numbers. Even before uttering a sound, she dazzles. Her loud dress and peacock headdress make her look like a human feather in technicolor. Her moves are sleek, elegant, but economical, more graceful throws of the arms and the legs than strenuous prances and pirouettes. Dolly Gallagher Levi, the fast-talking, loud-dressing, man-manipulating matchmaker promenades around as adoring waiters proclaim: “Dolly’ll never go away again!”
But Bette beware—starting in 1964, while sashaying her way into American hearts, the original indomitable Dolly, Carol Channing, marched straight onto a presidential enemies’ list.
Indeed, it is one of the enduring mysteries of Richard Nixon’s presidency: why did he target the ever-effervescent, seemingly harmless Carol Channing? How did our lady of the raspy voice, the glittery diamonds, and the perpetually toothy smile become a nemesis of that paranoid president? Channing herself was never sure.
Still, shameless performer that she is, the 96-year-old has happily exploited the negative attention. Her Playbill credit list has long catalogued the “countless honors” you would expect for a showbiz legend: Tony Awards and Oscar nominations, an Emmy and a Golden Globe, with a lifetime achievement or two thrown in for good measure.
Then, right after “A Best Nightclub Act of the Year Award, a Hasty Pudding Woman of the Year Award,” toxic politics intrudes with: “and an appearance on Nixon’s ‘hate list,’ which she numbers among her highest honors.”
Most explanations of Channing’s surprising role as a Nixon target mention her Democratic National Convention star turn in 1964. That January, the musical adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s play The Matchmaker had become an overnight sensation. The 43-year-old Channing was then most famous for starring in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
The 1949 musical smash provided her first signature song—“Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend”—and a motto—“never dress down”—which she always lives up to. A Time cover story gushed: “Perhaps once in a decade a nova explodes above the Great White Way with enough brilliance to reillumine the whole gaudy legend of show business.”
Channing shined even brighter in Hello Dolly! when it opened in 1964. The New York Times exulted: “Resplendent… and looking like a gorgeous, animated kewpie doll, she sings the rousing title song with earthy zest and leads a male chorus of waiters and chefs in a joyous promenade around the walk that circles the top of the pit.” The title song—written in an afternoon—was instantly singable, magnificently unforgettable, and eminently adaptable.
Inevitably, politicians tried muscling in on the action. Republican supporters of Senator Barry Goldwater started singing “Hello Barry.” But this improvisation offended the songwriter Jerry Herman’s liberal sensibilities, and those pesky copyright laws.
For their 1964 convention, the Democrats did it right, authorizing an official version with Herman’s permission. And so, there she was, in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Carol Channing at the top of her career, with her cartoonish affect, rasping “Hello Lyndon! Well, hello, Lyndon! / It’s just great to have you there where you belong!”
The producer of Hello Dolly!, David Merrick, paid to distribute a recording of that version. (Merrick could afford it.) The Broadway production hit big. Carol Channing would go on to sing the titular “Hello Dolly!” in at least 5,000 future productions all over the world, even as other legends like Ethel Merman and Pearl Bailey filled her high heeled shoes on Broadway. The musical’s original cast album became the best-selling Broadway album ever, even besting the Beatles that magical year.
Given her flamboyant hailing of LBJ, when the Watergate scandal nine years later unearthed Channing’s name on Nixon’s enemies list, many assumed singing “Hello Lyndon” made Carol Channing an obvious target for “Tricky Dick.” (Although Channing told an interviewer that Nixon claimed it was because she was one of those “people who don’t know how to act in the White House—they don’t have enough manners.”)
These conclusions ignore two critical pieces of evidence. First, while the enemies’ list, in the immortal words of Nixon’s White House Counsel John Dean, was part of a broader effort to figure out how “we can use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies,” one of the first opponents Nixon’s White House investigated was Ted Kennedy. Nixon’s Kennedy obsession was far deeper and darker than any Johnsonophobia. Channing’s 2002 autobiography Just Lucky I Guess reveals that she palled around with many Kennedys, particularly Jackie Kennedy.
Mrs. Kennedy’s first public appearance in New York with her two children, a year after John Kennedy’s assassination, was at a Hello Dolly! matinee. Channing remembers the audience graciously leaving the family alone. When seven-year-old Caroline Kennedy knocked on Channing’s door backstage Caroline got a great hello from a fully costumed Dolly. The little girl exclaimed: “She knew my name! Dolly Gallagher Levi knew my name!” Channing writes admiringly: “Now, how did Jackie keep them from knowing the whole world knew their names?”
Years later, in Nixon’s twisted universe some lines were clear: any friend of the Kennedys’ was an enemy of Nixon’s.
It’s easy to mock such an absurd list, for featuring such “threats” as Joe Namath, the football star, Paul Newman, the Hollywood heartthrob, and Barbra Streisand—whose fame won her the Dolly Levi role in the 1969 film version.
But Edward Bennett Williams, the aggressive attorney who also made the list, admitted that beyond the bravado about inclusion being “a badge of honor,” it was unnerving knowing that “the President of the United States was obsessed with wreaking some kind of revenge against me.” Williams endured three IRS tax audits in a row.
Although checks and balances constrain them nationally, American presidents enjoy tremendous power. The traditional demand that a president be a moral exemplar reflects the still compellingly democratic notion that the leader’s goodness reflects the republic’s.
And the need for a president to act ethically recognizes the harm an uncorked president can cause, to individuals, to America, and to the world. Although the Republic will survive, let’s hope we never have another thin-skinned, paranoid, vengeful president ever again.
Carol Channing, Just Lucky I Guess (2002). Charming show biz memoir—and quite informative regarding her warm relationships with the Kennedys and the Johnsons.
Robert Faires, “The Carol You Don’t Know: There’s much more to Ms. Channing than Dolly and Lorelei,” Austin Chronicle, 22 July 2005: A very illuminating interview.
Stanley Kutler, The Wars of Watergate (1990, 1992): Puts Watergate in historical context.