WILL ROGERS: A POLITICAL LIFE
By Richard D. White Jr.
Texas Tech University Press, $29.95, 408 pages
The story of Will Rogers has been told before, by Ben Yagoda in a 1993 biography. Rogers, the son of a former slaveholder and Confederate veteran, one-quarter Cherokee with no more than a 10th-grade education, began his career wandering the world before becoming the headliner of the Ziegfeld Follies and columnist for the New York Times. But as Richard D. White Jr. argues in this fine book, Rogers was closer to political power than the average journalist.
No stranger to Washington, D.C., Rogers regularly spoke before the Gridiron and Alfalfa clubs, met with Cabinet officers and attended congressional sessions (once receiving a standing ovation). Congressmen recognized his influence and sought his support on pending legislation. The National Press Club elected him congressman-at-large, Beverly Hills made him its first mayor. According to Mr. White, there was a note of wishful thinking in those stunts, as Rogers represented what people wanted in their politicians: no-nonsense honesty.
Rogers’ radio broadcasts, like his newspaper columns, were enormously popular. (His audience numbered more than 60 million.) His cracker-barrel humor appealed to the middle and lower classes, comfortable with homespun homilies and atrocious grammar. During the last two years of his life, he was the top male box-office star in the movies. (He made 71, one even on the White House grounds.)
Embracing mass-culture media served Rogers well. So great was his appeal that Fox studios paid him $600,000 to appear in four movies. He escaped losing his fortune in the 1929 stock-market crash by heeding advice given by pal financier Bernard “Barney” Baruch, who advised Rogers to stay out of the market: That playground was only for “professional volcano sitters” like himself.
Frank Kent, political columnist of the Baltimore Sun, considered Rogers “a mercenary clown.” H.L. Mencken thought differently, appreciating Rogers’ irreverent commentary and sheer talent. At a London dinner party, Mencken watched in admiration as this genial, gum-chewing, lariat-spinning genius won over even the most humorless harpie. That political criticism paved the way for many modern satirists.
But as Mr. White argues, “History has done a disservice to Will Rogers by frequently painting him in caricature as a hayseed cowboy comedian.” He was a savvy commentator with a keen insight into human nature, “a Benjamin Franklin of our time,” according to Baruch. Just take note, Washingtonians, eager climbers all, what Rogers said of Annie Oakley, the famous rifle shot who was also kindhearted: “It’s what you are and not what you are in that makes you.”
Rogers defended democracy but criticized any system that did not improve the lot of the common man. “So here we are in a country with more wheat and more corn and more money in the bank, more everything in the world,” he noted, ” … and yet we’ve got people starving. We hold the distinction of being the only nation in the history of the world that ever went to the poorhouse in an automobile.” At a meeting of bankers, he famously called them “the finest bunch of shylocks that ever foreclosed a mortgage on a widow’s home.”
He fought for religious tolerance and free speech, campaigned to abolish child labor and raised money to help poor blacks by the flooding Mississippi. An isolationist, he argued against the United States’ involvement in the Philippines.
Although Rogers viewed politicians as the lowest life form, he became friends with all, though he distrusted political extremists to the right (Father Coughlin) or left (Upton Sinclair). Presidents Wilson, Coolidge, Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt all recognized Rogers’ ability to sway public opinion. The Coolidge administration used Rogers to help mend relations with Mexico, the Hoover administration to visit earthquake-devastated Nicaragua and observe relations between Japan and China.
His influence was most profound during the Depression. A Jeffersonian who mistrusted big government, he nonetheless supported FDR’s New Deal policies on the radio, some of which preceded the president’s fireside chats.
Rogers’ “chronic wanderlust” never left him. Throughout his life, he continued to explore remote parts of the world, barnstorming the South to raise donations for drought victims, visiting Central and South America. His status as international celebrity opened doors to top foreign leaders not even U.S. ambassadors were able to visit.
Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 trans-Atlantic flight had a tremendous impact, furthering his commitment to aviation. (He and Lindbergh became good friends.) Rogers shared the thrill of flying in his columns, booking himself a ticket on scheduled airmail flights.
In August 1935, as tensions built in Europe, Rogers embarked on his fourth fact-finding trip around the world. The pilot was fellow Oklahoman Wiley Post, a famous flier of his day. Their fatal crash in Alaska shocked the nation. Fifty-one-thousand people waited five hours to pass Rogers’ bier in a Los Angeles cemetery, to mourn the loss of this “voice of reason and balance and a most trusted source of [the nation’s] political and moral conscience.”
Mr. White tells the political side of Rogers’ life clearly and well. His use of original primary material in the last two chapters is nothing less than masterful, making the last page one of the most satisfying and poignant endings to any biography I have read recently.