By Stuart Mitchner
I am not a member of an organized political party. I am a Democrat.
The Republican platform promises to do better. I don’t think they have done so bad. Everybody’s broke but them.
Be a Republican and sooner or later you will be a postmaster.
I don’t make jokes. I just watch the government and report facts.
Rather than yield to an inclination to fill the entire column with quotes by and about Will Rogers, who was born on November 4, 1879, I’m putting four of his timeliest, most politically resonant quips up front. You could say Will was born to the occasion, prime time Americana: World Series, Halloween, Election Day. In recent history, November 4 marked the election of three two-term presidents, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama. Bill Clinton, another two-term POTUS, was elected on November 3.
In the foreword to his biography of Rogers (Univ. of Oklahoma Press paperback 2000), Ben Yagoda writes, “America surprised itself when Will Rogers died, surprised itself by the size and force of its grief.” On August 16, 1935, the Associated Press sent out the news that Rogers and aviator Wiley Post had died in an airplane crash near Point Barrow, Alaska, “the northerrnmost point in U.S. Territory.” Democratic Majority Leader Joe Robinson made the announcement on the floor of the Senate: “Will Rogers, probably the most widely known private citizen and certainly the best beloved, met his death some hours ago in a lonely, far-away place.”
The poignance of “a lonely, far-away place” sounds the personal depth of Will’s relationship with the nation: he’s a loved one, a member of the family. At the same time, Yagoda compares “the magnitude of the reaction” to what might be expected after “the passing of a beloved president.”
The tone sharpens as Yagoda quotes legendary journalist/essayist H.L. Mencken talking about Rogers in the press room at the 1928 Republican convention: “He alters foreign policies. He makes and unmakes candidates. He destroys public figures. Millions of Americans read his words daily, and those unable to read listen to him over the radio.” Summing up, Mencken says, “I consider him the most dangerous writer alive today.”
Still another side of Rogers is shown in Bing Crosby: Swinging On a Star (Little Brown 2018), when Gary Giddins paraphrases a Metronome article that envisions Crosby stepping “far beyond the limited sphere of a singer of popular songs” to become “as Will Rogers before him, a part of American life, an astonishingly successful symbol of the good man.” The suggested lineage includes Mark Twain, George M. Cohan, and others “who didn’t need a Gallup Poll to tell them what the people wanted because none of them ever forgot that he was one of the people.”
Then of course there’s the best-known statement Will ever made, prescribing his own epitaph (“or whatever you call those signs on gravestones”): “I joked about every prominent man of my time, but I never met a man I didn’t like. I am so proud of that, I can hardly wait to die so it can be carved.”
And when he flies to the Arctic edge of civilization, he finds a fate more in line with the blunt “philosophy of life” Yagoda says Rogers once expressed to historian Will Durant: “What all of us know put together don’t mean anything. Nothing don’t mean anything. We are just here for a spell and pass on. . . . Live your life so that whatever you lose, you are ahead.” more