Decades-old Newhart routine rings true in today’s campaign

I remember finding it in our living room, nestled between two Frank Sinatra albums. I recall carefully fitting the record over the tiny spindle on the Victrola (I’ll wait while you young people Google that word) and asking myself what a “button-down mind” was.

I know what it means now: staid and conventional. Ironically it was the name of Bob Newhart’s first comedy album back in 1960. “The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart” was anything but conventional, despite Newhart’s demeanor being low key, almost lethargic. Think comic Steven Wright. Or presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson.

Newhart’s shtick was to enact one side of a conversation (often on the phone) in such a way that you could imagine what the other person might be saying on the other end. Shelley Berman, another comic of that generation, used a similar concept; but it was Newhart who so perfected his routine that “Button-Down Mind” became the first comedy monologue to make it to the top of the charts and become album of the year.

Some of those same younger readers are wondering, “Isn’t Newhart the guy who did that sitcom about an inn in Vermont?” Yup, that’s him.

So why is this iconic comedian (who is still performing at age 86) on my mind this week? All because of a passing remark by presidential candidate Jeb Bush, who has been dealing with some low poll numbers and admitted to being frustrated by conflicting advice he is getting from his consultants and advisers. “If Lincoln were running today,” jabbed Jeb, “someone would be telling him to shave off the beard.”

Sorry, Jeb, but Bob Newhart was way ahead of you on this — precisely 55 years before you.

“I was thinking,” Newhart says as he begins his brilliant comedy sketch, “what if there was no Lincoln back during the Civil War, and the advertising bigwigs had to create one? Here’s what a conversation might have been like between the president and a Madison Avenue marketer right before he made his Gettysburg address.”

Then Newhart, playing a “Mad Men” executive, chides Abe for thinking about changing his appearance, saying, “The beard, shawl, stovepipe hat, and string tie are all part of the image, Abe.” He asks Lincoln not to type his speeches but to write them on the backs of envelopes. “We want it to look like you wrote it while on the train.”

Then he discovers that Lincoln has been busy editing his upcoming address at Gettysburg: “You made a few changes?” questions an exasperated Newhart (long pause while he listens to Lincoln’s response). “You say you changed four score and seven to 70? That would be like Marc Antony saying, ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen, I’ve got something I want to tell you.’”

Apparently Abe also keeps messing up his best-known one-liner. “You keep saying it differently every time,” says Newhart. “Last time you said, ‘You can fool all of the people all of the time.’” Then he adds: “Please leave it the way Charlie wrote it.”

Listening to this classic sketch on YouTube doesn’t have quite the same charm it did when I first heard it on my Victrola. But I have no way of truly comparing those two experiences, since I no longer have a record of it.