Monday, August 27, 2012

Will Rogers' Political Life

During his life, Will Rogers was one of the most popular entertainers in the United States. Rogers was also a widely read columnist for several newspapers and magazines, such as the New York Times and the Saturday Evening Post, as well as a political force whose influence was sought after by Congressmen and Presidents. However, his role as a popular entertainer has generally overshadowed his political life, which Richard D. White fleshes out in his biography of Rogers

Will Rogers was born in the Cherokee Nation tract of the Indian Nation (now Oklahoma) to Clem and Mary America Rogers in 1879. Rogers' father - a district judge & senator for the Cherokee Nation who supported William Jennings Bryan and some Progressive policies - was a wealthy rancher, selling cattle in Kansas City and St. Louis. The family's wealth allowed them to send Will Rogers to school in Chelsea, and later, in 1897, to the Kemper Military School in Missouri. Rogers would not adapt to the regimented environment and would abandon his studies, leaving  for the Texas panhandle in 1898 to work as a cowhand.

After briefly working in the TX panhandle, Rogers returned home to manage his father's ranch; however, Rogers had a desire to see the world, and in 1902, he left Oklahoma for Argentina, where he planned to start his own ranch. It was difficult for Rogers to find a job in Argentina, and once again, he boarded a ship - this time landing in South Africa. There he found a job with Texas Jack's Wild West Show. In 1903, Will Rogers left Texas Jack's show and South Africa, joining a traveling circus in Australia and New Zeland. Upon returning to the United States, Rogers was a committed entertainer who took his act to Broadway, where he joined Ziegfeld's Follies and later became the nation's most popular movie and radio entertainer.

It was on Broadway that Rogers began using humor to comment on the social and political issues of the day. His began by criticizing Henry Ford's efforts to negotiate an end to World War 1, and later, made fun of William Jennings Bryan, with whom Rogers was quite friendly and whom he admired. However, what made the break for Rogers was his act in which he criticized the policies of Woodrow Wilson while the President was in the audience. The performance went off without a hitch - the President enjoyed the show - and the door was open for Rogers to criticize every sitting President during his lifetime. Whether it was Prohibition, women's suffrage, foreign policy, etc., Rogers would criticize all policies which disagreed with his beliefs, which were generally of a progressive bent (although he did oppose women's suffrage) but not dogmatically so.

His political humor eventually lead to a weekly column in which he expressed his views as he did on stage. As a columnist, Rogers was able to use his status as a member of the press and a celebrity to travel the world, including visits to the Soviet Union, giving Americans a look at a nation we knew little about at the time. Roger also visited Manchuria on behalf of the U.S. government in order to learn about the Japanese invasion and report back his observations. Aside from covering foreign affairs, Rogers also covered domestic politics and attended several political conventions - both Republican and Democrat. Rogers was a Democrat, but was often disappointed in the party until the nomination of Franklin D. Roosevelt, for whom he campaigned and later assisted in his efforts to promote New Deal policies.

Rogers died in plane crash in Alaska in 1935. That day a popular voice in American politics was lost, but it's lived on in his movies, columns, and books: a homespun philosophy that opposed corruption and longed for the peaceful state of primitive men, who "depended less on each other, and took less from each other" (p. 60). Speaking directly to the American people, Rogers influenced millions of Americans, and as Richard White writes, was a voice of stability in troubled times.

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