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Will Rogers’ Political Mind

Will Rogers made Jon Stewart. We’ll look at the cowboy comedian who kicked it off.

Will Rogers, humorist and actor, at a benefit dinner and dance in Nov. 1934 (AP)

Will Rogers, humorist and actor, at a benefit dinner and dance in Nov. 1934 (AP)

Before Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert and Mort Sahl and Lewis Black, Americans fell in love with a cowboy comedian who told it like it was, plain and simple.

Will Rogers was famous for his lariat and rope tricks, his aw-shucks way, his common touch. Everything he knew he read in the newspapers, he said.

But in his day, Will Rogers, homespun comic, was a much bigger draw than Oprah, and a political powerhouse. His humor moved the nation.

This hour On Point: Will Rogers, the cowboy comedian who cleared the way for Comedy Central.

- Tom Ashbrook

Guest:

Richard D. White, professor of public administration at Louisiana State University and author of “Will Rogers: A Political Life.” He’s also written biographies of Theodore Roosevelt and Huey Long.

More:

  • Listen to our previous hour with Richard D. White on “All the King’s Men” and Huey Long
  • Learn more about the cowboy comedian at the Will Rogers Memorial Museum.

Excerpt
Will Rogers: A Political Life

Introduction

When Will Rogers arrived in Manchuria during the winter of 1931, he was one of America’s best-known public figures and the nation’s foremost political commentator and social critic. From just before World War I, through the Jazz Age, Prohibition, the great Depression, and up until his tragic death in 1935, his humor captivated the nation and the world. Millions of Americans looked upon him as one of their most loved and trusted friends, and to many he was regarded as family. His popularity was unbounded. During the last two years of his life he was the top male box-office attraction at the movies, one of the most widely read newspaper columnists, and a radio commentator with an audience of over sixty million. For over a decade, he produced a remarkable outpouring of commentary—666 weekly newspaper columns, 2,817 daily newspaper articles, 69 radio broadcasts, 71 movies, and six books.4 (His grammar and spelling are reproduced in this book’s quotations.) every morning in drugstores and barbershops across the nation, men reading their papers glanced up at their friends and asked, “Did you read what Will had to say today?”

Rogers had an amazing entertainment career, but he was much more than just a talented humorist. He was the most incisive political commentator of his era who, beneath his humor, provided his countrymen a critically honest appraisal of American politics and world affairs. Few men touched the American moral and political conscience more deeply than Rogers. His astute observations, his ability to go straight to the heart of the matter and then put that into words that resonated with his listeners, propelled him to a level of influence unequaled in American history. When the witty one-liners are stripped away from Rogers’s message, a sobering and powerful view of his political clout appears. A closer look at whom he met, where he traveled, and the subjects of his writings and speeches reveals not so much a comedian but a true political insider with the power to shape public opinion and ultimately influence public policy.


Unfortunately, history has done a disservice to Will Rogers by frequently painting him in caricature as a hayseed cowboy comedian. Scholars and biographers rarely recognize his impact upon the political scene, discounting his influence because of his humorous routine, bucolic and innocent demeanor, lack of formal education, and Native American heritage. But some truly exceptional men such as Will Durant, George Bernard Shaw, H. L. Mencken, Bernard Baruch, and Carl Sandburg saw through Rogers’s homespun façade, each recognizing his true brilliance and power to influence public opinion and policy, each recognizing Rogers as a savvy commentator, well read, and the possessor of a keen knowledge of human nature. Like others who knew him well, they saw a streak of genius behind his beguiling grin.

Excerpt courtesy of the Texas Tech University Press

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  • at

    Can anybody not like Will?
    I guess we will find out in three hours.

  • http://www.richardsnotes.org/archives/2011/03/20/the-new-york-times-blows-a-chance-to-make-money/ Richard

    Be thankful we’re not getting all the government we’re paying for.
    – Will Rogers

    I am not a member of any organized party–I am a Democrat.
    – Will Rogers

    I can remember way back when a liberal was one who was generous with his own money.
    – Will Rogers

    I don’t make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts.
    – Will Rogers

    The business of government is to keep the government out of business–that is, unless business needs government aid.
    – Will Rogers

    This country has come to feel the same when Congress is in session as when the baby gets hold of a hammer.
    – Will Rogers

  • Grady Lee Howard

    Harry Shearer’s le show (KCRW) on Sundays and archived, persists in the same spirit as Will Rogers’ humor. “Apologies of the Week”, “Listen to the Warm”, “The Insectors General” and “News From Outside the Bubble” could have been originated by Will himself. Shearer does vocal characterizations (Simpsons) rather than rope tricks, but other than that, they are undeniably similar. But then again if Will Rogers began today he would be on the popularity level of Molly Ivins. People can’t handle the truth like they usta-could.

    • ThresherK

      Bonus points for mentioning Molly and Will Rogers.

      The delusion of people who consider themselves truth-seekers today…

    • nj

      Ahh, Molly. Sadly, gone far too soon.

  • Anonymous

    Jack should have been on hour 2 as well today.

  • Ayn Marx

    1.) How was he on race?—in context, I’m wondering about on the scale of mostly-white men of his time.
    2.) I can’t hear the name without thinking of Sinclair Lewis’ quotes, which worked out to, “When Fascism come to America, it will not come in jack-boots, but wearing the homy face of Will Rogers…wrapped in the Flag and carrying a Cross.” A home-spun appearance and act can mask a cruel and venal heart, as in Mssrs Reagan and Bush Minor, and there will be more, you betcha.

    • Anonymous

      Sounds like Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann if you ask me.

      • Anonymous

        Not really. He spoke intelligently and didn’t propose tax cuts as the solution to everything.

      • Gregg

        Amazing, simply amazing.

  • Anonymous

    I think had Will Rogers lived and witnessed the horrors of WW2 I doubt he would have had the same conclusion that he never met a man he didn’t like when it came to Hitler or Stalin.

    • Melbelle

      I agree! You can hardly call Hitler’s reputation heresay!

  • Beantown Johnny

    Well don’t we have a present day Will Rogers in the very person of Michael Moore?

  • http://twitter.com/Jtaylorvt John Taylor

    We forget that he was once the most popular movie actor in US. But how things change, my favorite Rogers’ quote is: ‘There’s good news out of Washington; Congress is deadlocked and can’t act.’

  • Alex

    This is why Republicans can’t get a lasting majority. Where were they with the government shot downs and their criticism when Bush was running up the debt and getting the country into foreign adventures? Had they stood up then, we would have been talking about a very different America right now.

    • Gary

      Had the Democrats been the Party of No during the Bush years, we would be talking about a very different America right now. But, alas, no spines, then or now.

  • Alex

    Sorry. Wrong board.

  • roymerritt19@gmail.com

    The right wing character that Tom spoke in reference to Sinclair Lewis
    was in the novel “It Couldn’t Happen Here” if my memory serves me. I don’t however recall if Lewis made mention of Will Rogers. Nevertheless it seems very pertinent in this day and age what with the plethora of right wing demagogues endlessly chattering on talk radio, television and the internet. Yet the republicans as well as the crazier republicans that makes up the tea party are the most humorless people in the world and none seem capable of presenting such a kind and personal persona such as Will Rogers presented you. For the most part they come across as bullies who see most people as beneath them. They celebrate greed and bigotry and then blaspheme by invoking the name of the Almighty allowing the He admires their endeavors. I would say Rush Limbaugh who does a credible impression of Bill Clinton I must admit and could be viewed as sort of a evil version. After all they are from somewhat the same area Rogers from Oklahoma and Limbaugh from Missouri. Limbaugh is addled by years of drug abuse and I’m hopeful one day he will forced from the airwaves. I am mostly familiar with Mr. Rogers through the old news clips you could sometimes on historical televisions shows. I am sixty-two years old and feel quite certain that I likely saw a broadcast of his biography on the old Twentieth Century show that Walter Cronkite did on CBS. I remember seeing his son Will Rogers Jr. in various forgettable movies. He always seemed a poor imitation of his father though the resemblance was remarkable. He seemed a very astute observer of his time. He was an inspiration during the dreadful depression and it’s a pity we don’t have such a individual in these wretched times. It’s so very true the more things change they remain the same or as Yogi Berra said “it’s deja vu all over again.”

  • RyanS

    During th Bush years I made the acquaintence of someone who considered Will Rogers one of her closest friends. She was the wife of a studio executive, later blackballed for his liberality, who worked directly with many stars including Rogers. She said Rogers was a fun person to hang out with but he also had a serious spiritual side. Spiritual but not religious. You can read her firsthand observations about Rogers in her autobiography, “20,000 Martinis and Counting”.

  • Vosdkeoblorr

    Thin and not too bulky to climb in, but not all that warm either.
    .This means when you’re in action you get warm THIRD WATCH DVD. So you should dress yourself appropriately in your ‘action suit’ MISSION?IMPOSSIBLE?DVD?. An action suit is usually a thermal baselayer, a fleece type midlayer and a shell on top crossing jordan dvd .

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  • Roshan

    Any plans to get Jon Stewart on this show ?

  • Pingback: Talking About Books . . . | Book Notes Plus

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