Manataka American Indian Council
The Political Wit and Wisdom of Will Rogers
by Steve Russell
Will Rogers, the Paint Clan Cherokee cowboy turned entertainer turned political pundit, used to say he did not make jokes. “I just watch the government and report the facts.” Like any intelligent man, he could be viewed as a bundle of contradictions, but most of his contradictions came from wearing his heart on his sleeve.
From at least 1916, when he first performed before the reputedly dour and humorless president, Woodrow Wilson, nobody was safe from his barbs. Before that performance, his political comments had been topical humor pulled out of that day’s newspapers. Having the president in the audience, for Rogers, took topical comedy to another level, bordering on what he never felt comfortable with: personal attack.
Characteristically, he started with the truth: “I am kinder nervous here tonight.” (Writing years later, he admitted, “that is not an especially bright remark…but it was so apparent to the audience that I was speaking the truth that they laughed heartily at it.”)
Encouraged, Rogers let fly with his usual routine, and the president wound up laughing at himself. According to biographer Ben Yagoda, Rogers was invited into the presidential box after the show. Still a bit nervous, he parked his omnipresent wad of chewing gum inside his hat, forgot he had done so, and suffered the consequences when he put the hat back on later. (His chewing gum habit would come up again in his choice of slogans for his Anti-Bunk Party, “He chews to run!” This was a gentle poke at President Calvin Coolidge, who did not “choose” to run for a second term.)
Wilson, a Democrat, was the first president roasted face-to-face by Rogers but hardly the last. There was plenty of fire to go around for both parties.
Will never hid his biases. He was more worried about the welfare of farmers than that of city folks, and working stiffs more than bankers. “I’m not a member of any organized political party,” he famously confessed, “I’m a Democrat.”
Although he aligned himself with the disorganized party of the workingman, it’s not clear that he ever voted. It’s safe to say, though, that he would have been disgusted with the current wave of voter-suppression laws and would have had plenty to say about the Republican Party pushing them. Rogers himself would not have been allowed to vote under many of these laws. He wrote of his difficulties getting a passport for lack of a birth certificate: “In the early days of Indian Territory, where I was born, there was no such things as birth certificates. You being there was certificate enough. We generally took it for granted that if you were there, you must have at some time been born.… Having a certificate of being born was like wearing a raincoat in the water over a bathing suit.”
Rogers was plain about his working class bias, but in the world of electoral politics, he practiced equal opportunity ridicule. “Both parties have their good and bad times,” he observed, “only they have them at different times. They are each good when they are out, and each bad when they are in.”
His personal friendships, like his jokes, were bipartisan. Among presidents, he was probably closest to the Roosevelts, the Republican Teddy and the Democrat Franklin D.
It’s not hard to picture what he might have said about the tradition of presidential candidates releasing multiple years of tax returns begun by the Republican George Romney and nearly ended by the Republican candidate this year, Mitt Romney. We would be hearing a lot about Swiss bank accounts, in between wisecracks about President Obama’s adventures with the Chicago political machines. “America,” he once said, “has the best politicians money can buy.”
Rogers reported on both parties’ nominating conventions for his syndicated newspaper column starting in 1920 and ending in 1932. Like most of his career moves, his coverage of the conventions started slowly, in part because he did not attend the 1920 conventions. His reportage was disrupted by the tragic death of his son Freddie in June 1920, the month both conventions were held. Characteristically, the grieving Rogers honored his contract, taking newspapers as his information, the same information his readers had.
The Democratic Convention was held in San Francisco, where Rogers was when he heard that his children’s “sore throats” were in fact diphtheria. He drove all night to Los Angeles get home, but Freddie died at four a.m. on June 17. Will’s first comment on the convention was dated the same day.
“Our national conventions,” Rogers later observed, “are nothing but glorified Mickey Mouse cartoons, and are solely for amusement purposes.” He was writing about the tendency for the real business of the conventions to be settled in backroom horse-trading. In fact, the “cartoons” were not as scripted then as they are now. The last candidate “drafted” at a convention was the Democrat Adlai Stevenson in 1952.
In 1916, Wilson, left, became the first sitting president to actually sit in the audience for Rogers’s vaudeville act. Rogers got plenty of material out of the troubled presidency of Harding and his vice president, Coolidge, middle, which was marred by a scandal involving Interior Secretary Albert Fall and oilman Edward Doheny. (AP)
The last “floor fight” for a major party nomination was in 1976, between Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan for the Republican nod. It was not that long ago that the political parties did real business at their conventions, although Rogers was correct to be skeptical about how much of it happened in public.
The 1920 Republican Convention was held in Chicago, which, Rogers reported, “holds the record for murders and robberies and Republican conventions.” He added that, “California’s 26 delegates to the Chicago convention were accompanied by 60 bootleggers.”
Rogers, bylined as “Famous Oklahoma Cowboy Wit and Goldwyn Motion Picture Star,” did his best from a distance to report the convention that launched the ill-fated presidency of Warren G. Harding. It was Harding’s selection by party bosses behind closed doors in the Blackstone Hotel that contributed the phrase “smoke-filled room” to our political lexicon. Harding went on to be elected, but his administration was quickly engulfed by the Teapot Dome Scandal, for which Secretary of the Interior (and political Indian fighter) Albert Fall eventually went to prison for bribery and against which all other political scandals were measured before the Watergate scandal. Harding was saved from further humiliation by his death in 1923.
Harding’s vice president, Calvin Coolidge served out Harding’s term, and stood for the nomination at 1924 Republican Convention. The slogan “Keep Cool with Coolidge” said it all.
This time, Rogers reported on the conventions in person and by now he was better known than most of the people he was writing about. Since Coolidge was unchallenged for the Republican nomination, there wasn’t much drama on the convention floor in Cleveland that year. “The city is opening up the churches now,” Rogers wrote in one dispatch, “So the delegates and visitors can go and hear…excitement of some kind.… Now I want this distinctly understood, that I have nothing against Cleveland. I love Cleveland because I knew them before this catastrophe struck them. She will arise…and some day be greater than ever.”
1924 Democratic Convention, New York City
The Democrats had a more exciting show at Madison Square Garden. “I suggested to them that if I was them I would adjourn before they nominated somebody and spoiled it all.”
Safety was an issue at this convention, where the Democratic Party split wide open over the influence of the Ku Klux Klan, and the number of cross-burnings and hooded marches outside the proceedings led some wags to refer to the convention as a “Klanbake.”
Inside Madison Square Garden, the main issue became a choice in the platform between a vague call for religious tolerance versus a full-throated denunciation of lynchings in general and the KKK in particular.
“They have been five days working on a plank on the Ku Klux and finally brought in the same one the Republicans used,” wrote Rogers. “Some guy from Maine offered an amendment naming the Klan.… There were 12,000 civilians and a least a hundred thousand cops in and around the building. There were 10 policemen standing in the aisle by the side of each Texas delegate.”
Will’s description was comic hyperbole, but the debate did rend the party when the KKK prevailed in the floor fight over the platform. After a record 103 ballots, the Democrats finally settled on John W. Davis for president. Davis comes down to us in history as the lawyer who argued the segregationist—and losing—side of Brown v. Board of Education.
By the end of the convention, he was reporting as “Will Rogers, Jr.,” because it had lasted so long that his son had supposedly taken over the task.
1928 Republican Convention, Kansas City
Once more in 1928, the Republicans put up no serious fights. Herbert Hoover, in a workmanlike march toward the nomination, had done enough advance work to be nominated on the first ballot. “The whole show,” Rogers complained, “has degenerated into nothing but a dogfight for vice president.”
Rogers could not let the convention pass without ribbing the first American Indian to appear on a presidential ticket, Charles Curtis. While he was also Osage and Potawatomi by blood, Curtis was enrolled Kaw and grew up on the Kaw Reservation in Kansas Territory. Curtis was, like Rogers, a pre-statehood Indian who had watched Indian governments get shoved aside. Rogers said of Curtis getting the nod for vice president: “The Republican Party owed him something, but I didn’t think they would be so low down as to pay him that way.”
1928 Democratic Convention, Houston
From Houston, Rogers laid out the major issue of the convention: “Since Prohibition was unearthed nine years ago, there has only been one argument invented that a politician when he is cornered can duck behind.… ‘I am for law enforcement.’ It don’t mean anything, never meant anything and never will mean anything. It would take practically a lunatic to announce: ‘I am against law enforcement.’
“Now the Republicans held their convention first, and naturally they grabbed this lone tree to hide behind. Now that leaves the Democrats out in the open.”
Days later, he continued: “The whole talk down here is wet and dry; the delegates just can’t wait till the next bottle is opened to discuss it. Prohibition is running about a quart to the argument here now.”
It was plain that the Democrats would “straddle,” as Rogers put it, with a “balanced ticket,” which in the context of the times meant a wet candidate (anti-Prohibition) and a dry one. When the convention settled on a wet—and the first Catholic, Alfred E. Smith—to lead the ticket, the way was open to put the first Southerner on a major party ticket since the Civil War. This was critical because Smith (and Catholics generally) had been subject to almost as much animosity from the Ku Klux Klan as African Americans and Jews. This was the very next convention after the one that splintered over the KKK.
The second spot on the ticket went to Arkansas Senator Joseph Robinson, about whom Rogers opined: “They got a great fellow in Joe. He is a real, two-fisted he-candidate. He comes from the wilds of Arkansaw, where they are hard to tame. I have had one in my house for 20 years, and there is just no managing ’em.” (Rogers was referring to his wife, Betty Blake, whom he had courted across the Arkansas line from Indian Territory.)
1932 Republican and Democratic Conventions, Chicago
It’s fitting that both parties convened in the same city in the depths of the Great Depression, since neither party had done much to prevent it. The Progressive reforms championed by Rogers’s friend Theodore Roosevelt were a distant memory, and the antitrust laws Roosevelt pioneered were honored in the breech. Rogers steadfastly refused to kick President Hoover while he was down or encourage those who did. When asked by Hoover to write something to discourage hoarding, Rogers complied by claiming that “a Jewish farmer at Claremore named Morris Haas hid $500 in bills in a barrel of bran and a cow ate it up. He has just been able to get $18 of it back, up to now.”
“This hoarding don’t pay.”
In a speech titled “Bacon, Beans, and Limousines,” Rogers cut through the rhetorical smoke about the need to balance the budget and the transgressions of other countries: “There’s not really but one problem before the whole country at this time. It’s not the balancing of Mr. Mellon’s budget. That’s his worry. That ain’t ours. And it’s not the League of Nations that we read so much about. It’s not the silver question. The only problem that confronts this country today is at least 7 million people are out of work. That’s our only problem. There is no other one before us at all. It’s to see that every man that wants to is able to work…and also to arrange some way of getting more equal distribution of the wealth in the country.”
In those dark days, the two major parties met in Chicago to debate how to get out of the hole and who would be put forward to lead the country out. The Republicans met first, and started a little slow, according to Rogers: “I couldn’t find out a thing about politics [here], and I guess that’s just about the way the whole country looks at it. Nobody here knows they are holding a convention. There is lots of flags out, but Tuesday is Al Capone’s birthday, so who knows?”
The next day, Rogers found a political story he cared about: “Well, got some scandal for you today, for it wouldn’t be a Republican convention without some sort of undercover ‘finagling.’ They are out now to throw poor old Injun Charley Curtis off and get another vice president.… Their alibi is that he is too old.… Well, they knew a few months ago how old he would be about now.”
Rogers went on to suggest that the people out for Curtis’s head explain it this way: “We are in the hole and we got to try and dig up somebody that will help us swing some votes. It’s not your age, Charley… You got to be the goat, not us. So any one we can think of that can carry the most votes we are going to nominate ’em, be it Charley Chaplin or Amelia Earhart. You been a good Injun, but its votes not sentiment we are after this year. So long, Charley, take care of yourself.”
Two days later, Rogers complained again: “Poor Charley is to be tomahawked in the back…just like they took the country from the Indians.… ”
When the movement to dump Curtis failed, Rogers claimed credit, probably correctly: “I saved my ‘Injun’ Charley Curtis for vice presidency. The rascals was just ready to stab him when we caught ’em. So it’s the same old vaudeville team of Hoover and Curtis.”
When the Democrats came to town, Roosevelt tried to replicate Hoover’s first nomination battle. He had entered and won every primary where he would not offend a local “favorite son.” This being the Democratic Party, it was not that simple.
Al Smith was nominated again, as was the Speaker of the House, John Nance “Cactus Jack” Garner. There was even a boomlet for Oklahoma Governor William “Alfalfa Bill” Murray. Rogers was friendly with all the contenders. Never a slave to objectivity, he addressed the crowd during a recess: “Now, you rascals, I want you to promise me one thing. No matter who is nominated, and of course some of you are going home disappointed that it was not your man, no matter who is nominated, don’t go home and act like Democrats. Go home and act like he was the man you came to see nominated. Don’t say he is the weakest man you could have nominated; don’t say he can’t win. You don’t know what he can do, or how weak he is until next November. I don’t see how he could ever be weak enough not to win. If he lives until November he’s in.”
This time, the Democratic platform managed to advocate repeal of Prohibition, to Rogers’s delight: “Did the Democrats go wet? No, they just laid right down and wallowed in it. They left all their clothes on the bank and dived in without even a bathing suit. They are wetter than an organdie dress at a rainy day picnic.”
He went on to lament that the Democratic platform had no plan “to get some bread with the beer.” The truth was nobody in either party had a clue. The economist John Maynard Keynes was an academic in Great Britain, and Roosevelt would find the magic of the aggregate demand curve by trial and error.
When Alfalfa Bill Murray’s candidacy did not catch fire, Oklahoma’s favorite son votes went to Rogers, a development he took in good humor. Roosevelt finally broke through by offering the vice presidency to Cactus Jack Garner, who accepted for reasons unclear in light of his later comment that the office was not worth “a bucket of warm piss.”
The Great Depression had, as Rogers predicted, set the stage for a rout of the Hoover administration. It’s hard now, even in difficult economic times, to picture the situation Roosevelt faced when he stepped into the White House. Unemployment was more than twice what it is now, without the cushions of unemployment insurance or Social Security or Medicaid. Armies of unemployed lived in shantytowns, dubbed Hoovervilles.
Rogers wrote from Claremore, Oklahoma on July 4, 1932, looking back on what would be his last convention coverage and, characteristically, looking forward: “Heard a mule braying a while ago at the farm and for a minute I couldn’t tell who he was nominating.”
Our story will continue with an examination of how Will Rogers’s observations regarding the folly of Prohibition have stood up in light of experiences by both the United States and the Indian nations that continue to practice some form of it.
Steve Russell gratefully acknowledges the research assistance of Steve Gragert, director of the Will Rogers Memorial Museum in Claremore, Oklahoma.
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