One of the most tragic accidental deaths of an American in the past century occurred 75 years ago today when a light plane helmed by famed pilot Wiley Post crashed in Alaska killing him — and the man often described as "the most popular" American of his time, Will Rogers. The phrase "nation mourned" is often tossed about carelessly but in this case it was true. Historians claimed it was greatest outpouring of genuine affection since Lincoln passed away. NBC and CBS radio went off the air for 30 minutes in mourning and movie screens all over the country darkened their screens for awhile.
Rogers was simultaneously the country’s most popular radio personality and newspaper columnist and one of the top three movie stars. Unfortunately, many Americans today (those who even know about him) think of him as merely a humorist or celluloid comedy star but he was also the nation’s most influential political commentator, and from a progressive point of view always promoting the "common man." His views on the economy, FDR and the need for bold action are particularly interesting in the Obama era.
In the wreckage of the plane in Alaska was found in his typewriter a sheet of paper with the beginning of one last column: "Now I must get back to advising my Democrats."
Perhaps the question most often asked in America was: Did you see what Will Rogers said? Some of his wisecracks had turned to cliche ("All I know is what I read in the papers"); others entered the American language as folk sayings or punch lines:
• "Every time Congress makes a joke it’s a law, and every time they make a law it’s a joke."
• "We hold the distinction of being the only nation that is goin’ to the poorhouse in an automobile."
• "This would be a great world to dance in if we didn’t have to pay the fiddler."
• "My idea of an honest man is a fellow who declares income tax on money he sold his vote for."
Will Rogers was America‘s "most complete human document… the heartbeat of America," Damon Runyon had observed. Reviewing one of his books, a New York Times critic insisted that "America has never produced anybody quite like him, and there has rarely been an American humorist whose words produced less empty laughter or more sober thought." The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr praised his facility in puncturing foibles "which more pretentious teachers leave untouched."
Rogers‘s life was an American amalgam. He liked to brag that his ancestors did not come over on the Mayflower—they met the boat. Rogers was born in Oklahoma Indian Territory in 1879, and he was part Indian, but his parents were prosperous Methodists. Before settling down as a political philosopher and movie star in the 1920s, Rogers worked as a cowboy, a circus performer, and a comedian. Rope tricks were his specialty, but Rogers was no bumpkin: he lived in New York City for many years while appearing with the Ziegfeld Follies, and he often traveled abroad.