Especially when elections or primaries or leadership conventions are on the radar, politics seems to become a particularly antagonistic, divided, angry phenomenon where people are very serious in their intent to prove themselves right and their opponent wrong. One person has been showing another way to go for over 40 years.
Wavy Gravy, the American activist and entertainer known for wearing rainbow tie-dye and clown noses, was born Hugh Romney in 1936. He was a comedian and storyteller before taking on the role of a clown to entertain sick children in hospitals. He also discovered that if he went to protests dressed as a clown, he was seen as less threatening. As he told Vanity Fair, “I’m on my way to Children’s Hospital (in Oakland), and as I’m heading out the door somebody gives me a red rubber nose. After several months, I just began collecting more clown things. A clown I knew who was retiring from Ringling Brothers gave me his giant shoes, and somebody else made me a clown suit. Then one day I had to go to the People’s Park (in Berkeley) for a political demonstration, and that’s when I discovered that the police didn’t want to hit me anymore.”
Gravy’s political activism often took the form of “Nobody for President” campaigns ( “Who’s in Washington right now working to make the world a safer place? Nobody!”; “Nobody’s Perfect”; “Nobody Keeps All Promises”; “Nobody Should Have That Much Power”; etc).
At one “Nobody for President” demonstration in Kansas City, Gravy recalls, “I’m surrounded by a bevy of cops who start patting me down. And one of the cops feels this bulge in my pocket. […] He puts his hands in my pockets and pulls out these wind-up clicking teeth. So the cop’s holding these teeth and they start clicking in his hand. And I say, “Quiet, our leader is speaking.” He rolls his eyes and gives me back the teeth and he says, “Get the hell out of here, you’re too weird to arrest.””
Gravy became famous as the emcee for all three Woodstock festivals, and turned that fame into a political lever to prod governments to do the right thing. “It was around the time of the great Pakistani flood,” Wavy remembers, “and relief was pouring in so very, very slow. There was a line of Gandhi’s that hit me at that time, it was something like, ‘If God should appear to starving people, God would not dare to appear in any form other than food.’ We’d had so much attention from that free kitchen at Woodstock, we thought if we were in Pakistan with any kind of food, we could embarrass the large governments, and they would speed up the food relief.”
“I’m sure that some people could regard Wavy Gravy as a leftover from the ’60s crowd,” says James O’Dea, executive director of Seva, upon whose board of directors Wavy sits. “After all, here is this guy who is still hanging out with tie-dyes and seems lost in the ’60s. But he really took the ’60s idealism and made it his life, and practiced it. We live in a time when, in some ways, there has been a certain unscrupulous use of morality and family values and official religion and righteousness in the public domain. What a remarkable contrast to somebody who spends the summer with inner city kids and the kids of homeless people, teaching them circus performing arts. He is your board member who is always there, who comes to every event, and who is helping you raise money for the ‘eyeballs’ in India, as he says. He is clearly a person who does his own inner spiritual work in a very persistent way and then matches it with his walk in the world.”
Gravy says, “Once you realize the interconnectedness of all stuff, there’s no going back. I have an old Gravy line, ‘We are all the same person trying to shake hands with our self.’”