That is exactly what Eartha Kitt did more than 40 years ago. Back then, the sultry singer, who died today at age 81, was one of many performers to speak out against the Vietnam War. She just chose an otherwise prim and proper White House luncheon in 1968 hosted by the president’s wife, Lady Bird Johnson.
In a discussion about troubled urban youth, Kitt said, “I think we may have missed the main point. The young people are angry, and their parents are angry, because they are being so highly taxed and there’s a war on—and Americans don’t know why.”
Then she looked at Lady Bird: “You are a mother too, although you had daughters and not sons. I am a mother, and I know the feeling of having a baby come out of my gut. I have a baby and then you send him† off to war. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot—and in case you don’t understand the lingo, that’s marijuana.”
The First Lady reportedly was at the point of tears when she responded to the gathering, “Because there is a war on—and I pray there will come a just and lasting peace—that still does not give us a free ticket not to try to work at bettering the things in this country that we can better. Crime in the streets is one thing that we can solve. I am sorry I can’t speak as well or as passionately on conditions of slums as you, because I have not lived there.”
Afterward, the First Lady quipped, “I do want to say this has been a lively meeting with lots of ideas.”
Kitt was unapologetic.
“I see nothing wrong with the way I handled myself. I can only hope it will do some good.”
It didn’t do her career much good, as it went into freefall, forcing to Europe for bookings for nearly a decade. The CIA maintained files on her and investigated her background, all but suggesting that she was a nymphomaniac, even though she otherwise embraced the image of a sex kitten. She said in 1998, “I was thrown out of the country, practically,” Kitt explains. “Johnson put out the news that I was a ‘bad girl’ by being rude and all that. And it wasn’t true. It was his way of defacing me in the eyes of the American people. He put me out of work.”
Only in 1978, when she won a Tony nomination for “Timbuktu!,” was she invited back to the White House, at a reception hosted by President Carter. Her exile was over.
Kitt didn’t stray from the political fray. “I’m for my country, not politicians who go blah blah blah,” she said last year, when asked about the field of presidential contenders. She got in a few digs about President Bush, a few others about Hillary Clinton and some words of praise for Barack Obama. This time, she wasn’t speaking at the White House.