Will Rogers, Where Are You?
Presidential campaigns used to be weighted with intellect and livened with wit. What happened to the good old days?
By Mary Beth Crain
As the 2008 race to the White House continues with all the candidates saying everything every candidate has ever said before, I figured it would be a good time to remember the role that humor once played in political campaigning. I say once because there’s certainly not a whole lot of it—the intentional variety, anyway—on the current playing field, unless you consider John McCain’s comeback to Chuck Norris’s comment that he’s too old to be President—“I guess I’ll have to send my 95-year-old mother out to wash Chuck’s mouth out with soap”—the essence of scathing wit.
No, there’s precious little wit in American politics today. Instead, the candidates are preoccupied with deadly serious platitudes. Oh for the days of those hilarious John Kennedy bon mots, or the cleverness of Abe Lincoln, who, when an adversary once accused him of being two-faced, replied, “Sir, if I had two faces, do you think I’d be wearing this one?”
Or the commentary of Will Rogers, the real vox populi, whose wry observations about government kept the people laughing and the politicians squirming. In fact, Rogers was so popular that twice during national conventions, his name was put in nomination. But each time he declined the honor, claiming that “the country hasn’t sunk so low that it wants a comedian intentionally in the presidency.” Nonetheless, he agreed to run for office in 1928 stricly as a humor stunt in the pages of Life magazine. On election eve, Life declared Rogers the "unoffical President of the United States," elected by the "vast silent majority." True to his only campaign promise, Rogers promptly resigned.
The wonderful thing about Will Rogers was that his humor was never dated. While he lambasted politics during the administrations of Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, and Roosevelt, his observations are just as relevant today. Watching President Bush’s State of the Union Address Monday night put me in mind of what Rogers said back in the 1930s:
“The president goes on the air tonight. Even if he’s good, there’s plenty of ‘em won’t like it. He can speak on the Lord’s Supper and he will get editorials against it.”
When Rogers was praised as our greatest American humorist, he had a characteristically modest reply. “I’ve got the easiest job in the world. How could I not be funny when I’ve got the whole government working for me?”
If Will were around today, witnessing the circus of the primaries, I guarantee he wouldn’t have a single new thing to say. Back some 70 years ago he quipped, “There has been an awful lot of people defeated in the primaries. Everybody was running that could get some cards printed. It was a great year for the printers.”
And as we complain about how the line between Democrats and Republicans gets fuzzier and fuzzier, and how every candidate is making outlandish promises just to get elected, I’m reminded of Rogers’ observation: “A flock of Democrats will replace a mess of Republicans, but it won’t mean a thing. They will go in like all the rest of ‘em, go in on promises and come out on alibis.”
Here are a few more Will Rogers gems:
“Herbert Hoover was the first elected presidential candidate I ever saw that kept his campaign promise. He had said he would follow Coolidge’s policies, and he did! He went fishing too.”
“Politics is just a custom and has nothing whatever to do with civilization.”
“If you have a radio, the next few months all you’re going to hear is candidates saying, ‘What I intend to do is...’ What he intends to do is to try and get elected—that’s all any of them intends to do.”
“Both sides are breaking their necks to find something to make an issue of. Mr. Coolidge has finally announced that his policy will be ‘Common Sense.’ Common Sense is not an issue in politics; it’s an affliction.”
“Mr. Davis, the Democrat, announced his policy will be ‘Honesty!’ Neither is that an issue in politics, it’s a miracle.”
“In the election that followed, eight million Americans showed that they had ‘Common Sense’ enough not to believe there was ‘Honesty’ in politics.”
“It must be getting near election time. They have commenced taking up all the babies, and kissing them. Mothers, when you see a baby picked up by someone nowadays, it is either one of two men: a politician or a kidnapper.”
And, lastly, a little humor regarding the Reds and the Blues. Rogers, of course, spared neither; while he roundly blasted Republicans at every opportunity, one of his most famous lines was “I don’t belong to any organized party—I’m a Democrat.” Well, let’s let two famous Presidents have the last say.
When it comes to presidential speeches, Harry Truman might have had the best opening line in history: “Say you’re an idiot. And say you’re a Republican. But I repeat myself.”
Theodore Roosevelt was giving a big speech on the campaign trail when he was interrupted repeatedly by a heckler yelling, “I am a Democrat! I am a Democrat!”
Finally Roosevelt paused and addressed the heckler. “My dear man, would you mind telling us why you are a Democrat?”
“My grandfather was a Democrat!” the heckler bellowed. “My father was a Democrat! And I am a Democrat!”
“And, my dear fellow,” Roosevelt continued, “if your grandfather was a jackass, and your father was a jackass, what would you be?”
The crowd roared. Roosevelt had him. Until the heckler triumphantly replied, “A Republican!”
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Senior editor Mary Beth Crain's last essay for SoMA was Oh Beautiful for Specious Highs…
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