Is it possible that Will Rogers, America's favorite trick-roping comedian during the Great Depression, was actually "the most incisive political commentator of his era," a man whose "astute observations . . . propelled him to a level of influence unequalled in American history"? (xx)
Rogers was, by any measure, one of the most influential Americans of his time. Although scorned as a lowbrow by James Thurber at the New Yorker and Arthur Sulzberger at the New York Times, the handsome, grinning, part-Cherokee Oklahoman was a leading movie star, radio personality, and newspaper columnist whose every pronouncement was followed by millions—including, it seems, several presidents of the United States.
As Richard D. White Jr. points out, Rogers was not content to simply crack jokes. He was a man of strong political views, and he incorporated daring political humor into his stage act. As his fame as a performer increased, he sought to leverage his popularity in order to gain political influence. He managed to personally befriend a succession of presidents from Woodrow Wilson to Franklin Roosevelt, even as he sometimes vocally disagreed with their policies.
Rogers had some notorious shortcomings as a political observer—his opposition to women's suffrage, his admiration for Mussolini, his reactionary racial views. Yet he was just as often blessed with prescient intelligence, predicting the stock market crash and warning of the rise of Adolf Hitler. He could also be admirably courageous in stating his political views. Once, addressing a convention of bankers, Rogers said "You're the finest bunch of shylocks that ever foreclosed a mortgage on a widow's home . . . If you think it ain't a sucker game, why is the banker the richest man in town?" (37)
White documents the numerous instances in which prominent politicians sought to cultivate Will Rogers. Chief among these is Franklin Roosevelt, who sent Rogers fawning letters and gradually befriended the comedian. Rogers enthusiastically endorsed Roosevelt, and the two men were reported to confer privately on the vital issues of the day. As it happened, the president's fireside chats over the radio were often preceded by Rogers's own popular radio program. Rogers, then, served as an unofficial warm-up act for Roosevelt, heartily endorsing the president's policies. White argues, "Rogers possibly did more than any other American to convince the public to accept the overall New Deal." (xxvii)
The major incident White cites to prove his thesis of Rogers's political influence is a trip that Rogers took to Manchuria in 1931 at the urging of Hoover's Secretary of War in order to gather intelligence about the Japanese invasion of China. The world-famous American comedian descended [End Page 224] from an airplane into sub-zero weather to analyze a conflict among cultures completely foreign to him. White argues that this is evidence of Rogers'a substantive credentials as an American "ambassador without a portfolio." Skeptics, however, can hardly be convinced by Will Rogers's own dispatches on the matter: "Those Japanese! Now, here is something I better tell you right off the reel: Don't ever call a Japanese a 'Jap' . . . this Jap business is a serious matter with them . . . Then, too, the word 'Jap' is short, and they are very sensitive about their size anyhow, and 'Jap' makes 'em sound shorter still" (203).
While White argues that Rogers was an active political force, he overlooks the possibility that Rogers was perhaps being used by powerful men in order to coalesce their own power. It seems likely that many leaders found it in their best political interest to cultivate—and even flatter— this leading celebrity who symbolized America's common folk. In the end, Rogers's essential contributions to political developments may be less consequential than White claims. It seems just as likely that he was a gadfly, albeit one with a large following. With his massive command of the public's attention, Rogers was much admired—and perhaps even a bit feared—by America's political leaders during...