WASHINGTON -- The usual partisan food fight was in full swing yesterday afternoon when an unassuming Rep. Bob Stump hushed the House of Representatives to make a solemn announcement, an announcement that Republican leaders insisted all should hear.
"It is my sad responsibility to tell you this afternoon," the Arizona Republican intoned, "Bob Hope passed away."
If the entertainer had been watching C-SPAN, he would surely have choked on his fresh fruit.
Fortunately, the 95-year-old legend was blissfully ignorant of his own death as he ate a late breakfast in his North Hollywood home.
"Congress can be wrong," allowed Ward Grant, Hope's longtime spokesman. "I hate to tell the American people that, but it's true."
If famous deaths do indeed come in threes, Stump's announcement might have been plausible.
After all, Frank Sinatra and Barry Goldwater would have shortly preceded him.
And Hope did bow out of a Library of Congress event in Washington on May 27, saying he was sick to his stomach.
But then again, Hope did attend that little parade in his hometown of Toluca Lake, Calif., last Saturday, and played a round of golf last week.
"Unfortunately, this is not the first time this has happened, but when you live to 95, I guess these things can happen," said his daughter, Linda Hope.
"I don't know if my father has been told about this, but I'm sure he'd say he's very happy to be here and that the reports of his death were premature."
The mix-up began when the Associated Press accidentally displayed on its Web site a brief Hope obituary, which the AP had been preparing in the event of the comedian's death.
Ruth Gersh, editor of AP Multimedia Services, blamed human error for a coding problem that caused the premature display of the obituary.
Before the obituary could be withdrawn from the Web site, the notice caught the attention of House Republican Leader Dick Armey, the second-ranking Republican.
But it fell to Stump, the quiet, conservative chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, to break the news.
In his 22 years in Congress, Stump had seldom sought the limelight. But it was only natural for him to announce Hope's demise.
A year ago, Stump, a World War II veteran, had shepherded through legislation naming Hope an honorary U.S. veteran, a title Hope earned with his long service entertaining the troops. Stump's career in Congress has revolved around defending veterans, especially the older generation that he personifies.
"We're all going to miss him," Stump mourned. "No man in uniform had a better friend than Bob Hope."
Never able to resist a chance to weigh in, other members followed.
"We are all saddened by his passing," said Rep. David E. Bonior of Michigan, the No. 2 House Democrat. "He provided so much joy and happiness to this planet and to our servicemen and women in particular.
dTC "He was a great American and a great world figure. We thank him for the memories."
The phones at Bob Hope Enterprises in Burbank, Calif., lighted up almost instantly.
Once the Hope family had called Washington to set the record straight, Armey sheepishly took to the House floor to apologize "to Bob Hope, his family, and the entire nation," adding, "I look forward to many more happy memories from a wonderful entertainer and a distinguished American."
For his part, Stump spoke to Linda Hope, then issued a statement that came to everyone's relief: "Bob Hope is alive and well."
Then it was back to the food fight, over a nonbinding budget resolution and a campaign finance bill that has little chance of passage.
Pub Date: 6/06/98