October 7th, 2008
11:00 AM ET

A candidate you could believe in

Pat Paulsen knew where he stood.

“I am neither left wing nor right wing,” said the deadpan comic and “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” editorialist during his quixotic run for the presidency in 1968. “I am middle-of-the-bird.”

Paulsen’s campaign, the subject of the classic mockumentary “Pat Paulsen for President,” was one of the few bright spots in that ugly year of 1968. The film makes up the final disc of a new 4-DVD box, “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour: The Best of Season 3,” which showcases the controversial variety show when it was at its height (and just before CBS canceled it after one too many run-ins with the network’s censors).

The DVD set is a mixed bag, with the brothers’ familiar comedy-and-folk music routines contrasted with both the sublime (some Bob Newhart monologues, the Ike & Tina Turner Revue) and the dated (the cast of “Hair,” Donovan at his trippiest). But “Pat Paulsen for President,” narrated by Henry Fonda (!) at his all-American best, still holds up.

There’s Paulsen on airport tarmacs in states such as Florida and Texas, praising the locals for their heartland values and attacking his home state of California … until he returns to California and disparages the rest of the country. There’s Paulsen offering to meet his rivals wherever they want: “I challenge [California Governor] Ronald Reagan to meet on his home grounds - the back lot at Warner Brothers.”

And, of course, there’s Paulsen at that most traditional of politicians’ events, the fund-raising dinner - in Paulsen’s case, a star-studded meal for 89 cents a plate.

(I have to wonder if William Safire was paying attention to Paulsen’s speeches. At one point, the candidate said, “Nay to the negative nincompoops who never nourished the nihilistic nerve to name a novice to nail down the nomination.” It’s a short jump from “negative nincompoops” to “nattering nabobs of negativism.”)

Paulsen failed in his 1968 run, as he did with his 1972, 1980, 1988, 1992 and 1996 runs, but his spirit lives on. “It is time to forget the petty bickering,” he once said, “and settle down to an old-fashioned mudslinging, name-calling campaign.” Modern audiences will no doubt relate.

- Todd Leopold, CNN.com Entertainment Producer

Filed under: television
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