It was 1964, and the U.S. presidential race was getting ugly. The incumbent president, Democrat Lyndon Johnson, had launched a campaign to shame Republican nominee Barry Goldwater for advocating the use of nuclear weapons in the ongoing Vietnam War. His campaign featured the famous "Daisy Girl" ad—which showed a little girl moments before a nuclear explosion—to imply that Goldwater was going to blow up everyone’s kids. But Goldwater struck back with a secret weapon: beloved movie star Ronald Reagan, who delivered a very popular TV speech backing the Republican candidate, in an effort to yank the undecideds back into the Goldwater’s corner. Things were touch-and-go.
Amidst the turmoil a quirky new candidate emerged, running as an independent write-in on the previously unheard-of Best Party: A Jewish housewife named Yetta Bronstein.
Despite the fact that no one had ever heard of her, Mrs. Bronstein got tons of media coverage right off the bat. Exuberant and chatty with a cartoonish Bronx accent, she was featured on dozens of radio shows every week, making some pretty weird promises. Among the perks Bronstein offered to her voters were a national game of bingo to decide which citizens need to pay taxes, free bagels, and a mink coat in every closet. She proposed to take members of Congress off of their salaries and put them on earned commission, and to allow guns in the home, but decrease the velocity of their bullets by 95 percent. She also wanted to spike the Senate drinking fountain with "truth serum" and to put a naked photo of Jane Fonda on U.S. postage stamps in an effort to ease the deficit—and give a break to people who couldn’t afford Playboy.
But even as Bronstein spouted one wacky policy idea after another, it seemed as though the press was taking her seriously. Not one interviewer ever suggested that the whole campaign might … just possibly … be a hoax.
It was one, of course, hatched by professional pranksters Jeanne and Alan Abel. The wife-and-husband team in New York City were the minds behind the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals (SINA), whose goal was to clothe naked animals in the name of public decency (they were best known for their catchy slogan, "A nude horse is a rude horse"). Somewhat conversely, Alan was also later responsible for the completely made-up Topless String Quartet, whom the Abels claim Frank Sinatra later offered a recording contract after seeing their photos.
In the Yetta Bronstein ruse, Jeanne, a skilled improviser, played the part of Yetta and ad-libbed a lot of her interviews, while Alan occasionally chimed in as her campaign manager with equally absurd bon mots. Because Jeanne was in her 20s and "clearly not a Jewish mother," she insisted on only booking radio spots and newspaper interviews, never appearing on television. As the hoax snowballed without getting called out, the pair began printing campaign materials and realized they’d need a photo of Yetta in order to sell the joke. They chose a picture of Alan’s mom, Ida, for their posters.
The Abels used a handful of different slogans for the campaign, such as "Vote for Yetta and things will get Betta," and "If you want simple solutions, then you gotta be simple." Yetta herself had a habit of bursting out into song during her interviews, specifically her self-promoting jingle (sung to the tune of "When the Saints Go Marching In"):
“There’ll be a change There’ll be a change There’ll be a change in government When Yetta gets to be First Lady and also President”
Jeanne Abel during the Bronstein campaign. Image credit: Alan and Jeanne Abel
As the campaign rolled on without being second-guessed, Jeanne landed hundreds of interviews, and the Abels got bolder and bolder. They staged political marches in Atlantic City, parading in front of the Democratic National Convention with "Clean Sweep with Yetta" signs featuring Yetta’s face on a broomstick. Yetta also wrote a letter to President Johnson, offering to drop out of the race if he’d take her on as his vice president. She even recorded promotional covers of "Nature Boy" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand" for some reason, which can be heard on YouTube today.
When November came, although she’d gotten plenty of attention, Yetta failed to win a single precinct (despite demanding a vote recount). LBJ retained the presidency in a landslide. Her failure didn’t deter her from running again in 1968 and publishing a book, The President I Almost Was, in the U.S. and UK while ramping up for her '68 campaign. She later ran for mayor of New York City and Parliament in the U.K. But she lost every race she entered.
Their losses haven’t stopped the Abels from pranking the country regularly ever since. In 2007, Alan and a friend, Paul Hiatt, picketed the White House lawn as "concerned color-blind citizens," protesting the Department of Homeland Security’s use of a color-based advisory system; they got as far as Condoleezza Rice, who laughed out loud when she read their flyer. They've also pretended to win the lottery at least twice, in 1990 and 2006, attracting reporters as they flashed doctored lottery tickets and staged flamboyant celebrations. Their daughter Jenny, along with her partner Jeff Hockett, wrote and directed a 2005 documentary titled Abel Raises Cain, chronicling her parents’ escapades.
Although it’s been a couple years since their last acknowledged large-scale public hoax—a fake campaign to "stop bird porn" in 2009, aimed at bird watchers they called voyeurs—Alan and Jeanne are still alive and kicking. And of course, with this being an election year, the Abels have been asked whether Mrs. Bronstein might run for president once more. In April, when Jeanne was asked on NPR’s Morning Edition whether Yetta had had any inclination toward throwing her hat (or babushka) into the 2016 presidential ring, she replied, "I don’t think Yetta has a place in this particular election season … The comedy’s already happening."