One of the most tragic accidental deaths of an American occurred in 1935 when a light plane helmed by famed pilot Wiley Post crashed in Alaska, killing him and the man often described as "the most popular" American of his time, Will Rogers. The phrase "nation mourned" is often tossed about carelessly, but in this case it was true. Historians claimed it was greatest outpouring of genuine affection since Lincoln passed away. NBC and CBS radio went off the air for 30 minutes in mourning and movie screens all over the country darkened their screens for awhile.
Rogers was simultaneously the country's most popular radio personality and newspaper columnist and one of the top three movie stars. Unfortunately, many Americans today (those who even know about him) think of him as merely a humorist or celluloid comedy star, but he was also the nation's most influential political commentator, and from a progressive point of view, always promoting the "common man." He was, in short, the Will of the people. His views on the economy, FDR and the need for bold action--and comments on the Upton Sinclair movement and election race in California featured in my book--are particularly interesting in the Obama era.
In the wreckage of the plane in Alaska was found in his typewriter a sheet of paper with the beginning of one last column: "Now I must get back to advising my Democrats."
Perhaps the question most often asked in America was: Did you see what Will Rogers said? Some of his wisecracks had turned to cliche ("All I know is what I read in the papers"); others entered the American language as folk sayings or punch lines:
• "Every time Congress makes a joke it's a law, and every time they make a law it's a joke."
• "We hold the distinction of being the only nation that is goin' to the poorhouse in an automobile."
• "This would be a great world to dance in if we didn't have to pay the fiddler."
• "My idea of an honest man is a fellow who declares income tax on money he sold his vote for."
Will Rogers was America's "most complete human document... the heartbeat of America," Damon Runyon had observed. Reviewing one of his books, a New York Times critic insisted that "America has never produced anybody quite like him, and there has rarely been an American humorist whose words produced less empty laughter or more sober thought." The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr praised his facility in puncturing foibles "which more pretentious teachers leave untouched."
Rogers's life was an American amalgam. He liked to brag that his ancestors did not come over on the Mayflower -- they met the boat. Rogers was born in Oklahoma Indian Territory in 1879, and he was part Indian, but his parents were prosperous Methodists. Before settling down as a political philosopher and movie star in the 1920s, Rogers worked as a cowboy, a circus performer, and a comedian. Rope tricks were his specialty, but Rogers was no bumpkin: He lived in New York City for many years while appearing with the Ziegfeld Follies, before moving to Santa Monica, and he often traveled abroad.
Although he never took the trouble to vote, Rogers read newspapers and magazines voraciously and hobnobbed with politicians and foreign dignitaries, gathering material for his seemingly spontaneous political gibes. "This man Rogers has such a keen insight into the American panorama and the American people," Theodore Roosevelt said back in 1918 when Will was still twirling rope, "that I feel he is bound, in the course of time, to be a potent factor in the political life of the nation."
A few years later, Rogers was mentioned as a presidential candidate, and he regularly received a strong write-in vote in state and national elections. This was one way for a populist voter to protest without turning Socialist. The humorist ran a mock campaign for president in 1928 as the candidate of the Anti-Bunk party ("He Chews to Run") in the pages of Life, the humor magazine. The National Press Club appointed him America's congressman at large, and others called him the Unofficial President. At the Democratic National Convention in 1932, he received twenty-two votes as Oklahoma's favorite-son candidate and was so excited he slept through the balloting. Another Oklahoman named Will Rogers, no relation, ran for Congress in honor of the comedian -- and won by fifty thousand votes.
To those who complained that his humor was becoming too topical, Rogers replied, "I hope I never get so old that I can't peep behind the scenes and see the amount of politics that's mixed in this medicine before it's dished out to the people as 'Pure statesmanship.'" He once compared the U.S. Senate to Siberia--the place "where they send all the rich men. " He proposed as his epitaph: Here lies Will Rogers. Politicians turned honest, and he starved to death.
During the early years of the Depression, he voiced the despair of the common man and appeared at countless benefits to raise relief money. "What is the matter with our country anyhow?" he wondered. "With all our brains in high positions, and all our boasted organizations, thousands of our folks are starving, or on the verge of it. Why can't there be some means of at least giving everybody all the bread they wanted, anyhow?" He boosted FDR's election, and when Roosevelt was about to take office, Will sent along a list of soon-to-be-immortalized suggestions:
"A smile in the White House again, why, it will look like a meal to us."
"Kid Congress and the Senate, don't scold 'em. They are just children that's never grown up... Keep off the radio till you got something to say... Stay off that back lawn with those photographers. Nothing will kill interest in a president quicker... "
"If somebody gets all excited and tells you, 'Wall Street has just done a nose dive,' tell them, 'Those Republican organizations don't interest me in the least. Why, there is 115 million of my subjects don't know if Wall Street is a thoroughfare or a new mouthwash.'"
Roosevelt, a big Rogers fan, followed his advice almost to the letter. When the president declared a bank holiday, Rogers commented:
The whole country is with him... Even if he does something wrong they are with him, just so he does something... If he burned down the Capitol, we would cheer and say, "Well, we at least got a fire started anyhow." ... We have had years of "Don't rock the boat." Go on and sink it if you want to. We just as well be swimming as like we are... For three years we have had nothing but "America is fundamentally sound." It should have been "America is fundamentally cuckoo." Every American international banker ought to have printed on his office door, "Alive today by the grace of a nation that has a sense of humor."Rogers called the NRA "decency by government control," although he was suspicious of the Brain Trust gang and theorists in general. "I don't know what additional authority Roosevelt may ask," he advised, "but give it to him, even if it's to drown all the boy babies, for the way the grown-up ones have acted he will be perfectly justified in drowning any new ones."
Some accused him of writing the president's speeches, but he explained that he was the Dumb Brain Truster and that the difference between him and Roosevelt was that "when he's talking he knows what he's talking about, and when I'm talking, I'm just guessin'."