“He is the American we can least afford to lose.”
That’s quite a statement. It was made almost 100 years ago, about Will Rogers. I have long been an admirer of Rogers, a native Oklahoman with Georgia roots — his ancestors were Cherokee Indians. He once said, “My forefathers didn’t come over on the Mayflower; they met the boat.”
Earlier this week I had the opportunity to visit the gravesite of Will and Betty Rogers in Claremore, Oklahoma, and the museum dedicated to the great man — and he was indeed a great man. In fact, I was reminded of just how great a man he really was. We could use more like him today. Heck. We could use just one like him today.
Rogers was a real cowboy, and by that I don’t mean that he walked with a swagger and acted like a he-man. I mean he made his bones by learning to rope and ride on an Oklahoma ranch. He learned to rope really well, and when he was trying to break in as a standup comedian in Vaudeville, he did rope tricks to alleviate the nervousness that being on stage can bring about. Or maybe he was breaking in as a trick ropester and made jokes about his miscues to alleviate his nervousness. I’ve heard the story told both ways.
What is not in dispute is that Will Rogers was a talented entertainer — on stage and screen — and a talented and beloved newspaper columnist. But what is most important is that Will Rogers, probably more than any American before or since, was an astute observer of human nature and the American condition, and particularly that of American politicians in general and Congress in particular.
In revisiting this man’s works and reading his words, written decades and decades ago, I was astounded by two things. One was how accurate his humor-laced comments were. The second, how true they still ring today. Let me give you an example or three.
“I am not a member of any organized political party. I’m a Democrat.”
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Of human nature he said, “Everyone is ignorant, just on different subjects.” Now that’s the truth. He also said, “Common sense ain’t too common these days. Don’t let yesterday take up too much of today. The road to success is dotted with many tempting parking spaces.”
Those are words we can live by today just as well as we could during his times.
He also said that “The short memory of American voters is what keeps most politicians in office.” And try this one on for size. “If pro is the opposite of con, then the opposite of progress must be congress.” Can I get a witness?
“I don’t make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts. The problem with jokes is that too many of them get elected.”
There are more. There are so many more golden words of wisdom. You should look them up and remind yourself of just how funny, witty and astute Will Rogers really was. In addition to being a writer and actor and entertainer, he was an adventurer and traveled around the world three times over the course of his abbreviated life.
In fact, it was his love of adventure that cost him his life. He was on a trip with aviation pioneer and pilot Wiley Post in Alaska and their plane crashed near Point Barrow, killing both Rogers and Post instantly. It was a tragic loss for America and the world because we need to be reminded of who we are, especially by that rare individual who can see inside the populace so clearly and report what he sees good-naturedly.
It was his true good nature and love of his fellow man that led Will Rogers to pen his most famous utterance, “I joked about and poked fun at every prominent man in my lifetime, but in truth, I never met a man I didn’t like.”
Now you can start listing all the bumper sticker choices for “Will Rogers never met this person or that person,” but I believe that he was sincere in his assessment, and I wish I could be more like him. I wish we all could.
Will Rogers said one more brilliant thing. “Never miss a chance to shut up.”
So I think I will.