Thursday, December 1, 2011

Will Rogers: A Political Life

Will Rogers: A Political Life by Richard D. White, Jr. Texas Tech University Press, 2011.

Review by J. Hewitt

Will Rogers was an improbable example of the classic American Dream come true.  This book looks at this very public figure as a political animal.  Rogers’ charm and wit propelled him into vaudeville and onto the Broadway stage in the 1920s.  After the rope tricks got stale, he began spicing up his stage act with comic comments about current events. The public and the politicians responded favorably to his gentle, and often shrewd, observations gleaned, in the beginning, from his daily reading of multiple newspapers with breakfast.

As Rogers’ inoffensive barbs brought more fame, he became favored by influential political bosses.  They wanted to be associated with a figure who the public viewed as reflecting the common sense ideas of middle America.

Will Rogers became one of the most popular entertainers in the 1920s and 1930s.  He starred in silent and talking films.  He had a weekly radio program so popular that President Franklin D. Roosevelt scheduled several of his ‘fireside chats’ to follow Will Rogers’ program.

Not an ideologue, Rogers was a life-long Democrat and shared much of Theodore Roosevelt’s worldview. He believed that the United States should stay out of other countries’ troubles while protecting the United States from conflict with a strong military. He did not believe in disarmament conferences, Prohibition, the Ku Klux Klan, or women’s suffrage.  He did believe in using fame to help others, charitable causes like the Mississippi floods in 1927 and the Depression, expanding commercial aviation, baseball, travel, and the New Deal.

Richard D. White’s book seeks to discover how this poorly-educated young man from the Cherokee Nation, now part of Oklahoma, became a confidant of presidents, kings, and princes while preserving his public reputation as just a regular joe.  Using newspaper archives and media accounts of Will Rogers public activities, White gives an account which at times is giddy with admiration and at other times speculative about Rogers’ activities on behalf of U.S. Presidents, but never dull.  Writing in colorful style peppered with Rogers’ one-liners, he makes a persuasive argument that Will Rogers is a unique, even an iconic, character in the American experience.

Available at  at 15 branches of the Free Library of Philadelphia

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