November 4, 2020

Comfort Food for the Morning After with Will Rogers

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.”

Fauci’s Perfect Pitch

My guess is that Will Rogers would have liked — or, probably, loved — Dr. Anthony Fauci and the slapstick first pitch the nation’s top infectious disease expert threw somewhere in the general direction of home plate to open the Covid World Series of 2020. I’ll admit I cringed and looked the other way, much as I’ve been doing for the past half year, but did anyone really need Fauci to make a perfect throw in an empty stadium with hundreds of thousands of Americans dead and dying? Writing in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, poet Rowan Ricardo Phillips describes the limited edition Topps baseball card commemorating the moment (already bought by over 50,000 people): “Decked out in a white Nationals jersey and red World Champions mask, a dark glove with snazzy orange highlights on his left hand as the ball floats above his extended right arm, Fauci’s eyes following the ball’s ill-fated spin — it’s actually quite a beautiful shot.”

In films like Life Begins at 40 and Steamboat Round the Bend, both made in the months before his death, the characters Rogers plays create a comfort zone that reminds me of the press-briefing presence of the modest, soft-spoken Dr. Fauci. That may help explain why he’s remained so trusted, so well-liked, so appreciated, in spite of the enormity of his task and the challenge of working under a president in denial. Like Rogers in his various roles (a small-town newspaper editor, a judge, a doctor), Fauci makes people feel better even as he’s telling them things they don’t want to hear and asking them to take precautions they’d prefer to ignore. Again like Rogers, Fauci doesn’t need a Gallup Poll to tell him what the people want because he never forgets that he’s “one of the people.”

Will at the ‘34 Series

A photo displayed on Getty Images tells you all you need to know about the appeal of Will Rogers, who is shown seated next to Henry Ford at the opening game of the 1934 World Series between the home team Detroit Tigers and the St. Louis Cardinals. Will is there to cover the game for the New York Times, the newspaper for which he’d been writing weekly/daily columns since 1922. He’s smiling as if he just cracked a joke, perhaps one about those two “well-mannered people from Oklahoma, Jerome and Paul Dean,” of the rowdy Gashouse Gang Cardinals, “the most likeable boys you ever saw” (it must have been “jealousy and not facts” that nicknamed them “Dizzy” and “Daffy”), and by the way: “Been out with Mr. Henry Ford today. He give $100,000 for the broadcasting privilege so he is dizzier than the Deans spending money like that.”

The photograph’s most striking message, however, can be read in the faces of the crowd seated behind Will, most of them beaming smiles in the direction of “America’s favorite son.” While it’s true that had the person sitting in Will’s place been a movie star like Clark Gable, the same fans might be smiling and staring, but the smiles would be expressing merely the hey-look excitement of celebrity gazers. The smiles for Will are alight with the warmth and affection of family feeling.

Less than a year later the news of his death swept over the country in banner headlines and radio flashes and newsreels. Trying to imagine the depth of the “moment of silence” observed in baseball stadiums in the wake of the news, I thought again of the article I quoted from, “Baseball’s Quiet Season,” which Rowan Ricardo Phillips begins with a discourse on “room tone” or “the sound a space makes when there is no other sound but the sound of the space itself.” As Phillips points out, “Every space has a tone; every space speaks.” This would be true for a man alone in the center of that speaking silence, as Dr. Fauci was on the opening day of a broken season, and no less true on the day of mourning in mid-August 1935, regardless of how many fans were in the stadiums, where the silence must have been, as the saying goes, deafening.

Flapjacks and Bacon

Will Rogers is at his most humanly touching, perfectly imperfect, characteristic best when he’s cooking up a stack of flapjacks for a man who has been on the verge of committing murder in Life Begins at 40, and better yet as Dr. John Pearly in Steamboat Round the Bend, when he’s frying some bacon for himself and the girl for whose honor his nephew has just killed a man. It was in that scene that the poetry of Will Rogers was first revealed to me. 

The situation is, to put it mildly, improbable. Uncle John has just talked his nephew into giving himself up, and the girl, played by Anne Shirley, is furious because she thinks he’s sent the man she loves to his doom (a “hanging judge”) while demeaning her as “swamp trash.” However, Fleetie Belle — she transcends her name the moment she creeps warily onto the scene — has such extraordinary presence, such a mixture of naive beauty and wildness, you can’t take your eyes off her. But Uncle John doesn’t really seem to comprehend her until she goes after him with a long, evil-looking fork, and you don’t begin to comprehend the poetry in his rumpled, shuffling, puttering, soft-spoken easygoingness until he calms her down by cooking up some bacon, as if it were the comfort food solution to all the woes of mankind. And when he drives away her outraged, whip-bearing father and his gang with the spontaneous fiction that she and his nephew are married, the look of loving wonder she gives him is beautiful to behold. She takes over the cooking of the bacon, he unpacks his late sister’s dresses for her to wear, and you begin to realize that you’ve witnessed one of the most touching love scenes John Ford ever filmed.

Bacon, Beans, Limousines

In the name of comfort food symmetry, I’m closing this column with some lines from one of Will’s most quoted statements, delivered in an October 18, 1931 nationwide radio broadcast paired with President Hoover, part of a six-week campaign to raise unemployment relief funds. Here are some quotes from what became known as the Bacon, Beans, and Limousines speech:

“It wasn’t the working class that brought this condition on at all. It was the big boys themselves who thought that this financial drunk we were going through was going to last forever. They over-merged and over-capitalized, and over-everything else. That’s the fix we’re in now.

“So here we are in a country with more wheat and more corn and more money in the bank, more cotton, more everything in the world — there’s not a product that you can name that we haven’t got more of it than any other country ever had on the face of the earth — and yet we’ve got people starving. 

“We’ll hold the distinction of being the only nation in the history of the world that ever went to the poor house in an automobile. The potter’s fields are lined with granaries full of grain. Now if there ain’t something cockeyed in an arrangement like that then this microphone here in front of me is — well, it’s a cuspidor, that’s all.”

The best introduction to Will Rogers I’ve seen in the past week is on YouTube, from Katie Mears (“Will Rogers: the Most Important Comedian You’ve Never Heard Of”). Her approach is casual, charming, and covers lot of ground in 25 minutes.