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Will Rogers

A Political Life

Richard D. White, Jr.

Publication Year: 2002

He was the top male box office attraction at the movies, one of the most widely read newspaper columnists in America, a radio commentator with an audience of more than 60 million, and a globetrotting speaker who filled lecture halls across the land. But how did humorist Will Rogers also become one of the most powerful political figures of his day?From just before World War I, through the Roaring Twenties, Prohibition, and the Great Depression, Rogers provided a refreshing yet sobering appraisal of current events and public policy. Through him, millions formed their opinion of President Wilson’s quest for a League of Nations, debated freedom of speech and religion during the Scopes Monkey Trial, questioned the success of several disarmament conferences, took pity upon the sufferers of the Great Flood of 1927, and tried to grasp the awful reality of the Great Depression.Rogers visited Washington often to attend congressional sessions and official receptions, testify at hearings, meet with cabinet officers, and speak at the exclusive Gridiron and Alfalfa Clubs. His open access to the Oval Office, the Senate cloakroom, and other inner sancta of national power was unmatched for someone not holding public office.In this groundbreaking biography Richard D. White argues that the nation’s most popular entertainer was not only an incisive political commentator but also a significant influence upon national leaders and their decisions. When Will Rogers perished in a plane crash in Alaska in 1935, Americans lost their most popular and beloved humorist, a man who put smiles on their faces, took their minds off war and depression and, for a moment, allowed them to laugh at his cracker-barrel humor and ultimately themselves. But Americans also lost their most trusted source of reason, a man who, more than any other, broke down the complex issues of the day and gave them a critically honest appraisal of American politics and world affairs.

Published by: Texas Tech University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. iii-iv

Contents

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pp. vii-viii

Illustrations

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pp. ix-xi

Abbreviations

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pp. xiii-xv

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Introduction: A Voice of Political Stability

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pp. xvii-xxviii

When Will Rogers stepped off the train in Mukden, Manchuria, in December 1931, the temperature was thirty below zero, so frighteningly cold and painful that he gasped for a moment, struggling to breathe.1 Trembling before an arctic wind that sliced through his thin overcoat, Rogers glanced around the station, noticing dozens of ...

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One. A Funny Man Turns Serious

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pp. 3-21

Will Rogers liked to brag that he was born on Tuesday, November 4, 1879, Election Day. For the next fifty-five years, politics would be an ever-increasing part of his life. Rogers was raised on his family ranch four miles from where the small town of Oologah would be settled a few years later in the Cherokee Nation, a vast tract of Indian Territory that became part of the new ...

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Two. Battling Suffragettes and Bootleggers

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pp. 22-37

Feeling like he had lost a good friend, Will Rogers mourned terribly after Theodore Roosevelt died. Rogers met every president during his adult life and befriended each of them, but he seemed to resonate most closely with the former Rough Rider. Without fail he agreed with what Roosevelt said and did, especially supporting his overall progressive philosophy as well as his efforts to build a strong ...

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Three. A Political Critic Emerges

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pp. 38-55

In June 1920 the Newspaper Enterprise Association hired Will Rogers to cover the Republican National Convention in Chicago, but he was in California filming a silent Western comedy, Cupid the Cowpuncher.1 During breaks on the movie set he gathered the latest convention news from the morning papers and typed up his daily articles. “I am being paid to write something funny about ...

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Four. Rooting Out Political Corruption

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pp. 56-83

Will Rogers, always mistrustful of politicians, knew the death of Warren Harding did not end the widespread political corruption of the early 1920s. Few people irritated Rogers more than crooked politicians, and plenty of them still remained for him to root out and ridicule. He attacked corruption in all of its forms, lashing out at politicians on the take, businessmen fleecing ...

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Five. Nobody Knows Anything about Russia

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pp. 84-105

For the love of Mike,” Will Rogers griped to his readers. “Why don’t we let Mexico alone and let them run their country the way they want to!”1 American foreign policy was always a sore spot for Rogers—he lost his temper every time the United States intervened in another country’s affairs. “Our gunboats are all in the Chinese war, our marines have all landed in Nicaragua, Kellogg is sending daily ...

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Six. The Mayor of Beverly Hills

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pp. 106-123

When Will Rogers stopped in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to give a lecture just before Christmas in 1926, he received a telegram from Douglas Fairbanks, the famed actor and a good friend, telling him that a group of prominent Californians had elected Rogers as the first mayor of Beverly Hills.1 In reality the mayor’s position was honorary and unofficial, as the president of ...

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Seven. The Nation’s Number-One Air Passenger

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pp. 124-145

After Will Rogers stopped in Concord, New Hampshire, on May 20, 1927, to raise more donations for Mississippi River flood relief and work the lecture circuit, he sat in his hotel room that night listening to the radio and, along with millions of other Americans, waited anxiously for the latest news. He typed away at his ...

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Eight. This Country Is Bigger Than Wall Street

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pp. 146-168

Throughout the Roaring Twenties, Will Rogers filled his newspaper columns with mostly upbeat and harmless anecdotes, bringing chuckles to millions of Americans each day. In one such column he described his taste in the popular music of the day. “Now I personally have always considered the drummer the best part of a jazz band,” he wrote. “I think if all the members of a jazz band play the ...

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Nine. The Dark Humor of Depression

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pp. 169-188

Soon after the beginning of 1930, a year when “optimism was overrated and pessimism was underrated,” Will Rogers realized the stock market collapse was no longer a joking matter and much more serious and prolonged than just a temporary Wall Street setback.1 As the future looked bleaker and bleaker, the country turned gloomy, pessimistic, even cynical. The expectation of difficult times ahead not only ...

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Ten. Journey to the Brink of War

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pp. 189-210

Picking up the newspaper one morning in September 1931, Will Rogers read that a Japanese army of twenty thousand troops had invaded China and quickly captured a seven-hundred-mile stretch of Manchuria. Knowing the Far East was filled with quarreling nations, each trying to dominate the region, Rogers feared that the latest incident could touch off a major war. “Japan has been trying to match a ...

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Eleven. No Longer an Impartial Observer

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pp. 211-231

As the summer of 1932 approached, Will Rogers looked forward to the upcoming party conventions and the presidential election the following fall. He may have joked that “our national politival [sic] conventions are glorified Mickey Mouse affairs,” but he also realized they were serious affairs that determined the country’s political future.1 The Republican Convention threatened to be another anticlimax ...

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Twelve. The Opening Act for Franklin Roosevelt

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pp. 232-254

Will Rogers waited a few days after Franklin Roosevelt’s election and then sat down and wrote a long, heartfelt telegram to the president-elect. Rogers gave him lots of advice: ...

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Thirteen. Circling the Globe Again—and Again

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pp. 255-275

In Ju ly 1934 Will Rogers, never able to sit still for very long, decided to take another trip around the world. He traveled to Washington early that month to discuss his itinerary with Secretary of State Cordell Hull, who soon afterward wrote his ambassadors in Moscow and Istanbul to arrange for Rogers to meet with Joseph Stalin and Kemal Pasha. While in Washington, Rogers met with the Soviet ambassador, ...

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Postscript: Setting of the Midnight Sun

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pp. 276-285

Asmall band of Eskimos had just finished a day of hunting seals and were skinning their kill on a beach alongside the Arctic Ocean. It was a summer evening in the northern Alaskan wilderness, and although the mist-shrouded sun dipped low near the western horizon, the natives knew it would never set, for this was the land of the midnight sun, a treeless desolate place over two hundred miles north of ...

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Sources and Acknowledgments

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pp. 287-288

The idea for this book emerged slowly. While doing research covering the first thirty years of the twentieth century for my earlier books and articles, I often came across quotations from Will Rogers. Usually they were humorous one-liners, inserted by authors to liven up otherwise dry manuscripts. But over time I realized there was more to Rogers’s comments, that beneath his humor was a more serious ...

Notes

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pp. 289-323

References

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pp. 324-329

Index

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pp. 330-347

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About the Author

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p. 348-348

Richard D. White, Jr. ,a former senior officer in the U.S. Coast Guard and icebreaker captain, received his Ph.D. from Penn State University. The author of Roosevelt the Reformer:...


E-ISBN-13: 9780896727595
E-ISBN-10: 0896727599
Print-ISBN-13: 9780896726765
Print-ISBN-10: 0896726762

Page Count: 347
Illustrations: 59
Publication Year: 2002

Edition: 1