“M*A*S*H” and the American Presidency
Today, February 28, is the 40th anniversary of the “M*A*S*H” finale which was watched by a record 105.9 million viewers. The show, a subversive antiwar spinoff of the dark comedic film of the same name, evolved into a rare unifying program beloved by people—and presidents—on both sides of the aisle.
Set in the Korean War, the show was really a critique of America’s involvement in Vietnam. It was clearly a liberal show, and its lead actors, including Alan Alda (Hawkeye Pierce) and Mike Farrell (BJ Hunnicutt), were unabashed leftists, but the show never became so strident that it lost its appeal to Americans of all stripes, with nine of its last 10 seasons finishing in the top 10 most watched shows. This cross-party appeal can be seen in both Democrat and Republican presidents’ reactions to the show.
In 1985, two years after the finale, Ronald Reagan praised Harry Morgan for his volunteer work as well as his acting skills, noting that it was his “‘M*A*S*H” performance as Colonel Potter—irascible, lovable Colonel Potter—for which I suspect you will be best remembered.”
In February of 2000, Bill Clinton used “M*A*S*H” as an indication of how things had changed over the last 25 years. Clinton contrasted the top shows of 1975, including “M*A*S*H” and “All in the Family,” with the new era in which there were now over 50 million “webpages on the World Wide Web.” Republicans looked to “M*A*S*H” as well, as George W. Bush’s Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Hagin told the New York Times’ Elizabeth Bumiller that Bush’s personal aide Blake Gottesman was like “M*A*S*H” character Radar O’Reilly in his ability to anticipate what the president was likely to want before he wanted it.
Barack Obama probably liked “M*A*S*H” more than any other president. Farrell once tried to introduce himself to the president, prompting Obama to respond, “No, no, no. I know who you are. I learned many of my values from watching your show.” In 2012, when asked by a younger couple in Minneapolis about his favorite TV show, Obama said, “You know what pops into my head? I’m older than you, so you won’t remember, but it’s a show called ‘M*A*S*H.’”
Obama’s mention of the age differential is telling, as “M*A*S*H” is largely unknown to the current generation. Its jokes have not held up well, and Hawkeye’s leering behavior toward female nurses would mortify the post #MeToo generation. Future presidents will probably never have seen it. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, for example, was about 5 when it went off the air. But “M*A*S*H” is worth remembering as one of the last shows that could unite the nation, engage in political humor without alienating large swaths of the American people, and mock the military even as it celebrated and honored the heroes who served in it. It’s for these reasons that “M*A*S*H” was once a touchstone for presidents, and for the nation.
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