Saturday, December 09, 2023

Bob Barker: Legendary Game Show Host and … Republican?

Bob Barker, 99, a broadcaster of more than half a century and longtime host of “The Price Is Right,” died Saturday — “close to 100 without going over,” as many have quipped.

Though an ardent animal rights activist famous for his tagline “help control the pet population, have your pet spayed or neutered,” an accused womanizer, and a beloved icon of the Hollywood culture, Barker’s “Right” tendencies in his later years were becoming much clearer.

Maybe that’s because liberalism has drifted so far to the radical Left that the generation born in the 1920s find themselves as strangers in an increasingly strange land. Perhaps it was simply the wisdom of years. But it’s more likely Barker was a man who walked in many different shoes throughout life and, as such, he was difficult to pin down into one category of thought or another.

Born in 1923, Barker spent most of his young life on a South Dakota Indian reservation, being himself one-eighth Sioux. He interrupted his business degree plans to enlist in the U.S. Navy during World War II where he trained fighter pilots. After marrying the woman who waited for him and following the war, he finished up his business degree and embarked on a radio career that eventually landed the young couple in Southern California. The rest is game show history, especially when he debuted as host of “The NEW Price Is Right” in 1972. (Yes, there was an earlier version of the show that Barker didn’t host — ancient history.)

He took his rural values and Americanism with him from behind the mic to onstage. It was announced he will be buried next to his wife of 36 years, Dorthy Jo Gideon, who died in 1981 — rare devotion considering Hollywood’s reputation for disposable relationships.

Barker, in his post-career days, began to warm up to several Republican candidates. Surprising many, he filmed a spot endorsing David Jolly, a candidate for the Republican Party nomination for the 2014 special House election (FL-13). Jolly won the primary and the general, serving for a term before being ousted by Charlie Crist. Watch the video below.

And although Barker was no stranger to talk shows of many varieties — including David Letterman, Rosie O’Donnell, and Ellen DeGeneres to name a few on the Left — he was on the rotation for “The Huckabee Show,” starring former Republican Arkansas governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. Barker first appeared there in 2010.

Barker, though a PETA facility and an anti-whaling vessel are named for him, did not fit the peacenik mold of your typical activist. Who can forget his hosting of wrestling showcase “WWE Raw” in 2009? And we’re not allowed to forget his staged fight with Adam Sandler in 1996’s “Happy Gilmore.” Such is the stuff of pop culture legends, but also men who aren’t afraid of celebrating their manhood.

As a matter of fact, many game show hosts are/were of that mold. The leftward news blog Daily Beast tried to figure out “this tiny island of Reagan Republicanism” in a 2017 post. The writer noted Pat Sajak‘s donation to the Republican National Committee and support of numerous candidates and causes, including a column in National Review Online. Chuck Woolery, Wink Martindale, Merv Griffin, John O’Hurley, Jeff Foxworthy, Ben Stein, and others were/are known for their donations and right-of-center commentary. Barker’s successor, Drew Carey, is an outspoken Libertarian. The late Alex Trebek gave $3,000 to Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.

Monty Hall may have been the only famous exception, having donated $250 to U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman‘s presidential run. But then again, Lieberman was a centrist and even religiously conservative at times.

The Daily Beast went as far as to find a game show expert and university professor who posited that most shows appeal to instinct, rugged individualism, and competition. These are values celebrated by free market capitalism. The exception would be simple quiz shows, such as “Jeopardy,” which tend to pull in a liberal audience, but still draw in their share of other political persuasions. “Family Feud,” “Supermarket Sweep,” and especially “The Price Is Right” are more Populist in nature. Audiences gravitate to a host who appears in charge and grants an aura of confidence to matchups of brawn and brain, as well as familiarity with the open market. (Read more here.)

Is it no wonder, then, that rehashed game show offerings on network TV lately have pooled from Hollywood actors and comedians, not former broadcasters?

Back to Barker: he had this magnanimous yet authoritarian presence missing in so many presenters today. It’s much different from the ingenuine clapping and hooting common among recent game show hosts, which put them more in the role of cheerleader. You see, a good game show host is above the fray. Barker had that level of transcendence mastered. He could congratulate you, console you for losing, and call you an ignorant buffoon all with the same face and composure. It made you trust the games being played, which during Barker’s career often struggled with a lingering reputation of being rigged.

As mentioned above, Barker may not have been a moral example. But if we ever wonder what drew folks to TPIR or Barker as a celebrity or Generation X icon, it was that presence he maintained. This presence is missing so badly today. GenX sensed it, and loved him despite the fact it was grandma’s show.

Bob Barker controlled the mic. Nowadays long range and ubiquitous lapel mics pick up every grunt, groan, woo, and OMG from a contestant. Hosts will sometimes carry around a pencil mic for show or added pickup, but it’s not the scepter of power it once was. Bob let you know when it was your time to be heard.

He let you play. It was Bob’s game, and if you stepped out of line you’d get playfully ridiculed or loudly booed. Now contestants routinely clown around for attention. Under Bob any showboating was risk-taking.

He held court. Even though we all knew there were producers/judges in the booth (“gentlemen, do I have one number right?”) he put his stamp of approval on each and every call made. And you didn’t talk while he was putting. Not at all. Noises off.

Carey is a worthy successor to the Price is Right throne in many ways: kind, welcoming, and subtle in his humor, and apparently a fellow supporter of smaller government. But he’s as socially conservative any episode of “The Drew Carey Show” (i.e. not very), and it shows. Not that Barker was particularly outward about his faith or values (the vaguest of sources say he was a Christian), but that he was a product of a different time. And that showed, too. Hats off to Carey for not trying to imitate Barker.

We all mourned when Barker left the show. Numerous Internet personalities joked that they thought Barker had already died. Maybe we were lamenting numerous things when Barker stepped down in 2007. As a few examples of what we were mourning: Monoculture via nationally broadcasted television that we all looked forward to when sick from school or work (now replaced by niche cable channels, streaming, and scrolling on social media). The concept of an American gentleman (being replaced by a growing androgynous ideal). Confident romantics, even if having the ladies pull out a $100 bill from his suit pocket wasn’t always the best look for Bob (also thinking of Richard Dawson‘s over-the-top flirtation in early “Family Feud” seasons). Or how about masculinity in general?

In wake of Trebek’s passing and as Sajak prepares to pass the mic, we must be carrying around quite a bit of unrealized grief as torchbearers of the aforementioned values. We would do well to remember these hosts in our day-to-day lives — whether we may take the podium or pulpit, greet guests into our home, welcome children to an outdoor event, or just invite friends to poker night. This goes for both sexes, and celebrating the differences and attributes God made for male and female. America will need strong hosts of all kinds going into a future in which trust becomes a rare commodity and nobody seems in control.

UPDATES: 9/2/23, minor edits.