PLEDGE NOW
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

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
ONPOINT
TODAY
May 22, 2015
Crashed cars with airbags deployed are shown to visitors as part of the display of Toyota Motor Corp.'s safety performance standards at the automaker's exhibition hall in Toyota, central Japan. (Shuji Kajiyama/AP)

ISIS rolls on. A TPP vote. Biggest recall ever – airbags. And Letterman’s last bow. Our weekly news roundtable goes behind the headlines.

May 22, 2015
The Barden Bellas, the all-female a cappella group at the center of Pitch Perfect 2. (Richard Cartwright/Universal Pictures via AP)

Pitch Perfect 2 is the number one movie in the country, and it’s over the top on a capella.

RECENT
SHOWS
May 21, 2015
Ships dock at the piers at the seaport town of Murmansk on the Kola peninsula in Russia. Russian authorities have detained a Greenpeace ship 'Arctic Sunrise' and 27 crew and they face charges when they arrived at Murmansk. (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)

The Arctic Circle is opening up at a gallop as the ice disappears. Oil, gold, armies, spies. Big opportunities and fear of the consequences.

 
May 21, 2015
In this photo taken Sunday, Dec. 21, 2014, late light falls on Wheeler Hall, South Hall and the Campanile on the University of California campus in Berkeley, Calif. This famously liberal college town is known as the cradle of the Free Speech Movement, but speech isn’t the only thing that’s free here. Whether you’re strolling the redwood-shaded University of California, Berkeley, campus, or slipping across the Oakland border for a dose of Golden State history, you can exercise your limbs and your intellect without giving your wallet a workout. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

With student debt topping $1 trillion, a renewed call for radical change – maybe even free public university tuition. We’ll hear more about it.

On Point Blog
On Point Blog
A Former Bike Gang Member Explains "The Life"
Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Larry called in from Lawrenceburg, KY and told us he was once a member of the Pagan’s Motorcycle Club, a mid-Atlantic biker gang. He didn’t sugar coat the facts as he explained the draw of the brotherhood and what makes the outlaw motorcycle corner the underworld go round.

More »
Comment
 
Our Week In The Web: May 15, 2015
Friday, May 15, 2015

We cancel a few hours and suddenly all of you get convinced of a global radio conspiracy! Plus, dragon zoos.

More »
1 Comment
 
Caller: ‘It Doesn’t Always Turn Out Okay’
Wednesday, May 13, 2015

One caller shares her own story of an extremely premature birth. Her daughter, born at 22 1/2 weeks in 2012, was taken off life support after seven days.

More »
Comment