All of the late night comics and writers, from Johnny Carson on, who comment on the day's news and public personalities, can thank one man, who made fair game of politicians and other public figures. In the 1920s and 30s Will Rogers kept America laughing, and politicians just a bit more humble with his radio quips, his personal appearances, and a daily column in the newspapers. In the '30s Rogers was voted the most popular male film star, and was a clear favorite for the title of "Most Quoted and Most Popular Man in America."
Will Rogers was born into a prominent Cherokee family in what was then Indian Territory (Oklahoma) in 1879. He was proud of his Indian heritage. He said, "My ancestors did not come over on the Mayflower, but they were here to greet the Pilgrims when they landed."
His father was a successful rancher and a leader of the Cherokee Nation, serving in the Cherokee Senate for several terms, and as a Delegate to the Oklahoma Constitutional Convention. He used his influence to soften the cultural differences between the Cherokees and their white neighbors. But he was a hard taskmaster where young Will was concerned and the clash of personalities of father and son resulted in an estrangement that was not yet entirely resolved when the father died in 1911.
Rogers was more interested in the ranch than he was in school as a boy. A freed slave taught him to use the lariat, both for cattle work and tricks, skills which he mastered quickly and were to set him on the course of his life's work. From 1900 to 1902 Rogers traveled to South Africa with the Texas Jack Wild West Show, and to Australia with the Wirth Circus, doing rope tricks, as "The Cherokee Kid." Those foreign audiences were extremely appreciative of his unique talent.
Back in the United States Rogers attempted to repeat his rope trick success on the Vaudeville Stage. The response he received from the American audiences was not nearly as positive as it had been in Africa and Australia. After a time, when a trick failed, Rogers began to visit with his audience as he set up his next rope trick. His remarks were unrehearsed, and entirely "off the cuff." He filled time by talking about items he had read about in the newspapers, ending with a comment, usually humorous, about the item and the person that had made the comment. Before long his audiences were more interested in his comments on the news than they were in his trick roping skills.
Washington was a fertile ground for Roger's comments. He referred to Politics as "The Greatest Show on Earth", and Congress as "The National Joke Factory." He referred to the Senate, "Ancient Rome declined because it had a Senate, now what's going to happen to us with both a House and a Senate?" Again, "Be thankful we're not getting all the government we're paying for." "About all I can say for the United States Senate is that it opens with a prayer and closes with an investigation."
On a forthcoming election, "A fool and his money are soon elected." "A difference of opinion is what makes horse racing and missionaries." "Alexander Hamilton started the U.S. Treasury with nothing, and that was the closest our country has ever been to being even." "Anything important is never left to the vote of the people. We only get to vote on some man; we never get to vote on what he is to do."
Newspapers were fair game for Rogers. "A man only learns in two ways, one by reading, and the other by association with smarter people." Advertising is the art of convincing people to spend money they don't have for something they don't need." "All I know is just what I read in the papers, and that's an alibi for my ignorance." A remark generally hurts in proportion to its truth."
No one was immune to Rogers' observations. "A holding company is a thing where you hand an accomplice the goods while the policeman searches you." "America is a nation that conceives many odd inventions for getting somewhere but it can think of nothing to do once it gets there." "America is becoming so educated that ignorance will be a novelty. I will belong to the select few." "An ignorant person is one who doesn't know what you have just found out." "An onion can make people cry, but there's never been a vegetable that can make people laugh." "Being a hero is about the shortest-lived profession on earth." "Chaotic action is preferable to orderly inaction." "Buy land. They ain't making any more of the stuff." "Live your life so that whenever you lose, you're ahead." "If you live life right, death is a joke, as far as fear is concerned."
Rogers said, "I don't belong to any organized political party, I'm a Democrat." "Democrats never agree on anything. That's why they're Democrats. If they agreed with each other they'd be Republicans. Yet, Rogers counted Republican President, Calvin Coolidge as one of his best friends. After Franklin Roosevelt was elected President he became Roger's favorite subject for his biting political comments.
During Roger's life he circled the globe three times, meeting people, exchanging his views with world leaders, and talking about World Peace. He was the star of the Ziegfield Follies, the toast of Broadway, and starred in 71 movies. Yet, he chose to remain the simple Oklahoma Cowboy, a devoted husband and father. He had a genuine respect for people everywhere. He gave his own money to disaster victims, and raised millions for the Red Cross and Salvation Army.
Rogers was equally at home on his ranch in Oklahoma, or in California. He loved working with horses and roping steers, but he was also a world class polo player. He often said, "There must be something wrong with a person that doesn't love a horse."
Among Roger's many interests was flying. That brought him into a friendship with fellow Oklahoman, Wiley Post. Post was a born pilot. He wore a distinctive eye patch, as the result of an oilfield accident in his youth, in which he had lost an eye. He used the $1,800 settlement from the oil company to buy his first airplane.
Though Post had little formal education he became a scientific innovator, developing one of the first pressurized flying suits, which enabled him to set stratospheric records in his Lockheed Vega, "The Winnie Mae." He was also the holder of two "round the world" flying records; in 1931, 8 days 16 hours, with navigator, Harold Gatty, and in 1931, 7 days 19 hours, solo.
In 1935 Wiley Post became interested in a mail and passenger route from the West Coat, through Alaska to Russia, and planned a trip to look over the route and possible stops along the way. Rogers asked to go along, to get new ideas for his newspaper column.
Near Point Barrow the two ran into very bad flying conditions. They were flying low, to maintain visual contact with the ground, when the engine failed. The badly overloaded plane crashed, killing both men instantly. America had lost its favorite citizen and its No. 1 Ambassador to the World,
Said Rogers, "When I die, my epitaph, or whatever you all those signs on gravestones, is going to read, 'I joked about every prominent man of my time, but I never met a man I didn't like.' I'm so proud of that, I can hardly wait to die so it can be carved."
Source: Will Rogers by Jos. H. Carter, Will Rogers Quotes