Kovacs’ Corvair

Good morning. It’s Monday, Jan. 13, 2020. I’m out on assignment this week, but didn’t want to leave you hanging, so I’m reprising history-themed essays from years gone by. Today’s references this date in 1962, when a comedic genius named Ernie Kovacs was killed in a one-car crash.

Although Kovacs’ loss was tragic for his family and left a void in Hollywood, the accident that took his life had repercussions far beyond the world of entertainment — not all of them negative. Some still reverberate in U.S. politics and American corporate life, as I’ll explain.

Related imageErnie Kovacs was born in Trenton, N.J., but he was born for Hollywood. He arrived in Southern California as television was establishing itself as the ascendant medium in this country, and quickly put his stamp on the new technology. He was once described affectionately as a “comedian who looked like a friendly but possibly demented insurance salesman.” But Kovacs was much more than a comedian. He wrote for magazines and television, experimented with sound and visuals, and influenced two generations of television entertainers (including news anchors) — and is doing so to this day.

Kovacs was uninhibited in front of the camera as well as behind it. With his trademark cigar, he often ad-libbed, which came naturally, and he addressed the audience as though they were in the room with him. “Kovacs did things no one did before,” media critic Jeff Edelstein noted. “He spoke to the camera. He set up drawn-out visual gags. He ad-libbed his way around the set. And while these quaint little tics are the domain of just about every TV personality today, you must understand this: Kovacs created these things.”

“Nothing in moderation,” reads the first line on his headstone. “We all loved him,” reads the second. They did, too. The pallbearers at his funeral included Billy Wilder, Jack Lemmon, Frank Sinatra, and Dean Martin. Much of Kovacs’ acclaim came after his death, but those on the front lines in television’s pioneering days knew what they would miss. “We lost a real genius,” lamented Lucille Ball.

Kovacs died in the early morning hours when he missed a turn at the corner of Beverly Glen and Santa Monica boulevards. He and his wife, actress and singer Edie Adams, had been attending a baby shower, hosted by Wilder, for Milton Berle and his wife. Ernie and Edie were heading home in separate cars.

Ernie was driving his new Chevrolet Corvair station wagon, probably too fast, when a light rain began falling. He was not wearing a seat belt — few motorists did back then — and he was killed instantly. A photograph from the scene showed an unlit cigar a few feet from his body, leading to speculation that he was trying to light it and lost control of the vehicle.

Two years later, however, another culprit emerged: the car itself. The indictment came in the form of a book, “Unsafe at Any Speed,” by a young Harvard Law School graduate named Ralph Nader. The book focused on the popular Corvair, manufactured by General Motors.

Image result for ralph naderGM’s ill-considered decision to hire private detectives to look for dirt on Nader backfired, helping make the book a runaway bestseller, prompting congressional investigations, inspiring the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 — along with ushering in entirely new national attitudes about consumer safety.

Today, Ralph Nader is viewed with little fondness by the leaders of the Democratic Party. They blame his quixotic third-party presidential run in 2000 for keeping Al Gore out of the White House, and they’ve taken steps — some of them quite undemocratic — to keep him off the ballot ever since. That is part of the man’s legacy. There is also this: Tens of thousands of Americans, perhaps hundreds of thousands, are alive today because Ralph Nader investigated the safety of the Chevy Corvair.

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)

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