Steve Russell : Will Rogers and the Jokes of Partisan Politics

Will Rogers. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The jokes of partisan politics:
Will Rogers ‘chews to run’

‘I’m not a member of any organized political party,’ he famously confessed, ‘I’m a Democrat.’

By Steve Russell | The Rag Blog | December 7, 2012

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 faced 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 the latest newspapers. Having the President in the audience, for Will, took topical comedy to another level bordering on what he never intended, 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 Rogers biographer Ben Yagoda, Will was invited into the presidential box after the show. Still a bit nervous, he parked his omnipresent wad of chewing gum in 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 parody of Calvin Coolidge, who did not “choose” to run.)

Wilson, a Democrat, was the first President to be roasted face to face by Will Rogers, but hardly the last. There was plenty 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.”

Of course, in our time we can laugh at that remark as ancient history… unless we think about the 1968 Democratic Convention, when the delegates pledged to the anti-Vietnam War candidate Eugene McCarthy were physically ejected, adding to the chaos in the streets of Chicago that year. Or the 1972 Democratic Convention, when the anti-war outsiders became insiders and spent so much time wrangling among themselves that George McGovern gave the speech that was supposed to end the war at a time when the television audience had gone to bed.

Having admitted to identifying with the disorganized party of the workingman, he still seldom bestirred himself to vote. It’s not clear that he ever voted. It’s safe to say, though, that he would be disgusted with the wave of voter suppression laws and would have had plenty to say about the Republican Party pushing them.

Rogers himself would not be 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.

Informed in the passport office that they knew him, but still needed proof he was an American citizen, Rogers was still puzzled:

That was the first time I had ever been called on to prove that. Here my Father and Mother were both ….Cherokee Indians and I have been on the Cherokee rolls since I was named, and my family had lived on one ranch for 75 years.

The argument that you have to have a picture identification to get on an airplane would not have impressed this early and enthusiastic endorser of civil aviation, because the voter suppression laws are not aimed at people who normally get on airplanes.

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. “America,” he claimed, “has the best politicians money can buy.”

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 ended by the Republican 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.

Will Rogers reported for both parties’ nominating conventions starting in 1920 and ending in 1932. Like most of Rogers’ career moves, his convention coverage started out slow, because he did not in fact attend the 1920 conventions. His reportage was disrupted by the tragic death of his son Freddie in June of 1920, the very month both conventions were scheduled. 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 get home, but Freddie died at 4 a.m. on June 17. His first comment on the convention was dated the same day.

“Our National Conventions,” Rogers observed, “are nothing but glorified Mickey Mouse cartoons, and are solely for amusement purposes.” Will was writing about the tendency for the real business of the conventions to be settled in back room horse-trading rather than in public.

In fact, the “cartoons” were not as scripted in advance as they are in our times. The last time a candidate was “drafted” at a convention was the Democrat Adlai Stevenson in 1952. 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 how much of it happened in public.

Will Rogers practiced “equal opportunity ridicule.” Image from New Hampshire Commentary.

1920 Democratic Convention, San Francisco 

In the 1920 Democratic Convention, for example, there were 1,092 delegates and only 336 of them were “pledged,” meaning that they had promised their vote to a candidate on the first ballot. Of those 336, most were pledged to “favorite sons,” a mechanism for party bosses in a state to capture the delegation after the first ballot, since a “favorite son” was not going to win the first ballot.

There were, of course, no “favorite daughters,” since women only got the vote nationwide with the ratification of the 19th Amendment in August of 1920, although they had the franchise in most western states much earlier.

The wide-open nature of the race for the Democratic nomination was a result of the country in general being ignorant of President Woodrow Wilson’s health problems, and as a result uncertain whether he would stand for re-election. In fact, Wilson had been incapacitated beginning in 1919 — the government effectively run by his wife and the cabinet — because there was no 25th Amendment providing for disability of the president until 1967.

The only candidate in 1920 who had dared to enter primaries while his party held the White House was Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, whose legacy in history is primarily the “Palmer raids,” roundups of immigrants thought to harbor radical ideas. Neither the Palmer raids nor his run for the Democratic nomination produced any lasting results, although Palmer’s name comes to mind more easily than that of the man actually nominated, Gov. James Cox of Ohio.

1920 Republican Convention, Chicago

The 1920 Republican Convention was held in Chicago, which, Rogers reported, “holds the record for murders and robberies and Republican conventions.” He alleged, “California’s 26 delegates to the Chicago convention were accompanied by 60 bootleggers.”

Will 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.

Rogers “reported” an imagined dialogue between himself and one of the party bosses, Pennsylvania Sen. Boies Penrose, who, in spite of serious illness, kept his hand in from Philadelphia with both telephone and telegraph wires in his sick room. Rogers asked “Penrose”:

“What makes the delegates change? Don’t they stay with their man?”

“The delegates vote the way their people told them the first ballot. But after that they sell to the highest bidder.”

“But that’s not honest, is it?”

“No, just politics.”

While Harding went on to be elected, his administration was quickly engulfed by the Teapot Dome Scandal, in which Secretary of the Interior (and political Indian fighter) Albert Fall 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, but since the incumbent President Calvin Coolidge was untainted by Teapot Dome, all the drama was gone from the 1924 Republican Convention. The slogan “Keep Cool with Coolidge” said it all.

This time, Rogers reported the conventions on the scenes. By 1924, Rogers was better known than most of the people who were the subjects of his dispatches. His byline had become, simply, “Will Rogers.”

1924 Republican Convention, Cleveland

Admitting to the cut and dry nature of the Coolidge nomination, Rogers reported, “This is the first Vice Presidential convention ever held in the history of politics.”

“The city is opening up the churches now… 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. Rogers had progressed from the one-liners that dominated his reportage in 1920. It was a measure of the relative excitement that he produced five articles on the Republicans keeping cool with Coolidge and 18 on the Democratic Party’s circus. By the end of the Democratic Convention, he was reporting as “Will Rogers, Jr.,” because it had lasted so long that his son had supposedly taken over the task.

I suggested to them that if I was them I would adjourn before they nominated somebody and spoiled it all.

We heard nothing from 10 o’clock in the morning until six at night but “The man I am going to name.” Then they talk for another thirty minutes and then, “The man I am going to name.” There have been guys going to name men all day, and all we ever got named were about six out of a possible 200.

They all kept the names until the last word. It was safer.

Safety was indeed 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 1924 as the “Klanbake.”

Inside Madison Square Garden, the main issue became a choice in the platform between a vague call for religious toleration and racial harmony 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,” observed Rogers.

Some guy from Maine offered an amendment naming the Klan… There were 12,000 civilians and at 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 North Carolina announced to the Chairman that three and eighty-five one-hundredths of a delegate were in favor of the Klan amendment, and that twenty and fifteen one-hundredths of a delegate were against it, why, there was a round of laughter that broke up what was the most tense moment ever witnessed in a convention hall.

Rogers went on at length about the anatomical improbability of fractional delegates. “If a delegate is three-seventeenths of one vote, what would that make an alternate?” The silliness subsided but the KKK prevailed in the floor fight.

Today they start balloting, and I suppose some man will win the nomination by the narrow margin of a left forearm of a North Carolinian.

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.

1928 Republican Convention, Kansas City

One of the things Will Rogers’ biographers cannot agree upon is how many airplane crashes he survived before the one that took his life. Because of his devotion to the cause of civil aviation (and military aviation before that), Will always minimized mishaps and covered them up when he could.

Flying from his home in California to the Republican Convention in Kansas City, Rogers survived two of what he called “incidents, not accidents.” The first was a wheel breaking on landing in Las Vegas, which ended with the plane on its back. Just a few hours later, in a different plane, Rogers survived a hard emergency landing in Cherokee, Wyoming. He complained that he had lost his overcoat in the confusion around the “incidents,” but vowed to keep his bloodstained shirt for a souvenir.

Once more in 1928, the Republicans put up no serious fights. Herbert Hoover, in a workmanlike march toward nomination, had done enough advance work to be nominated on the first ballot. “The whole show,” Will complained, “has degenerated into nothing but a dog fight for Vice President.”

Rogers did note one thing that has changed in our time, when no Democrat holds statewide office in Texas:

They had a time seating the Texas delegation, as there was no law in Texas to apply to a Republican primary. Texas never thought they would come to a point where there would ever be any Republicans there. They also have no laws against the shooting out of season of reindeers or musk ox.

There was a rare hint of foreign policy debate when one of the speakers alluded to U.S. intervention in Nicaragua, where the U.S. had sent Marines in 1926. The U.S. had pressured the Nicaraguan congress to elect Adolfo Diaz president, something that Will commented on at the time:

We say that Diaz is the properly elected president of Nicaragua, but Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Chile, Mexico, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Cuba, Guatemala, Colombia, Uruguay, Paraguay — all those say that the other fellow is the properly elected president. It’s funny how we are the only ones that get everything right. I’d rather be right than Republican.

Two years later, Will had not changed his mind:

[The speaker] brought up Nicaragua, but he left the marines down there. He said that he would protect American lives down there, even if we had to send some there to protect.

This was vintage Will Rogers, who never hid his opinion that other countries in general, and Latin American countries in particular, ought to be allowed to govern themselves without U.S. meddling.

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 Will 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 anticipated 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 Will put it, with a “balanced ticket,” which in the context of the times meant a wet and a dry. 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 Sen. Joseph Robinson, about whom Will 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.

Will was referring to his wife, Betty Blake, whom he had courted across the Arkansas line from Indian Territory.

The Smith-Robinson ticket was decisively defeated by Hoover-Curtis, but within a year the “Roaring Twenties” would quit roaring.

Will Rogers: “Never a slave to objectivity.” Image from MovieFanFare.

1932 Republican and Democratic Conventions, Chicago

In retrospect, 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 Will Rogers’ friend Theodore Roosevelt were a distant memory, and the anti-trust laws Roosevelt pioneered were honored in the breech.

Wall Street speculation was rampant at a time when the margin requirement was only 10%. That is, to buy $1,000 worth of stock, a trader only needed $100 in his account. The common belief was that the stock market would always rise, and a rising tide would lift all boats. Politicians were either unaware of or ignored a degree of income inequality in the U.S. that would not be seen again until current times, when we once more choose to assume that the key to prosperity is that the rich do well.

The conventional wisdom came crashing down on Black Tuesday: October 29, 1929. A stock market that had been volatile for some time took a dive. Thirty billion dollars in paper wealth disappeared in two days.

When a similar crash began in September of 2008, the Federal Reserve Bank responded with major liquidity injections, “loose money.” This could not happen in 1929, when the Federal Reserve was bound by the gold standard and private gold hoarding was common.

Speculation in a perpetually rising stock market was not anything that appeared to need regulating in 1929, so when investment banking collapsed, so did commercial banking. Crop loans and inventory loans dried up. When banks failed in those times, the depositors simply lost their money. A rumor became enough to set off a “run” on a bank.

President Hoover’s major policy response was the protectionist Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act. Will Rogers was opposed to tariffs in general and that bill in particular, because he felt that it hurt farmers and helped bankers, a view that may have sounded simplistic but was vindicated by events.

Rogers steadfastly refused to kick Hoover while he was down or encourage those who did. When asked by Hoover to write something to discourage hoarding, Will 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,” Will cut though 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 7,000,000 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 Will:

I couldn’t find out a thing about politics, 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.

Will went on to suggest that the people out for Curtis’ head say 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, Will 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, Franklin D. 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 Gov. William “Alfalfa Bill” Murray. Will Rogers was friendly with all the contenders. Never a slave to objectivity, Will actually 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 Will’s delight:

Did the Democrats go wet? No, they just layed 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.

Will 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 Will Rogers, a development Will took in good humor.

Roosevelt broke though 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 economic times challenging by the standards we know, to picture the situation President Roosevelt would face. Unemployment was over twice what it is now, without unemployment insurance or Social Security or Medicaid. Armies of unemployed lived in shantytowns, dubbed “Hoovervilles” by the Democrats.

Will Rogers wrote from Claremore, Oklahoma, on July 4, 1932, looking back on what would be his last convention coverage and, characteristically, forward:

Heard a mule braying a while ago at the farm and for a minute I couldn’t tell who he was nominating.

Steve Russell gratefully acknowledges the research assistance of Steve Gragert, Director of the Will Rogers Memorial Museum in Claremore, Oklahoma. A shorter version of this article appeared in Indian Country Today

[Steve Russell lives in Sun City, Texas, near Austin. He is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. Steve was an activist in Austin in the sixties and seventies, and wrote for Austin’s underground paper, The Rag. Steve, who belongs to the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is also a columnist for Indian Country Today. He can be reached at Read more articles by Steve Russell on The Rag Blog.]

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2 Responses to Steve Russell : Will Rogers and the Jokes of Partisan Politics

  1. What a fine read ! Thanks, Steve.

  2. Tim White says:

    Great piece. The research and hard work are apparent.

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