One of the most tragic accidental deaths of an American in the past century occurred a little more than seventy-six years ago, when a light plane helmed by famed pilot Wiley Post crashed in Alaska—killing both him and Will Rogers, a man often described as “the most popular” American of his time. The phrase “national mourning” 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 thirty minutes in mourning and movie screens all over the country darkened their screens for a while.
Rogers was simultaneously the country’s most popular radio personality and newspaper columnist and one of its 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 consistently promoted the “common man” from a progressive point of view. He was, literally, the Will of the people. His views on the economy, FDR and the need for bold action in tough economic times are particularly interesting in the Obama era.
“What is the matter with our country anyhow?” he wondered. “With all our brains in high positions, and all our boasted organizations, thousands of our folks are starving, or on the verge of it.”
In the wreckage of the plane in Alaska, a sheet of paper was found in his typewriter with the beginning of one last column: “Now I must get back to advising my Democrats.” As for the GOP, Rogers quipped: “A conservative is a man who has plenty of money and doesn’t see any reason why he shouldn’t always have plenty of money…. With a Republican there is something about his make-up that the richer the man the less he should be watched—the bigger the industry the more wider open it should run.”
Perhaps the question most often asked in America was: Did you see what Will Rogers said? Some of his wisecracks had turned to cliché (“All I know is what I read in the papers”); others entered the American language as folk sayings or punch lines, such as “I belong to no organized party, I’m a Democrat,” plus:
“Every time Congress makes a joke it’s a law, and every time they make a law it’s a joke.”
“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.”
“There are graveyards in forty-eight state capitols where headstones say, ‘Here lies Governor Meantwell. Here lies Governor Honesty. Here lies Governor Reform. Yet the barnacles of connivance, political graft, lobbyists, and party leeches are still hanging onto the whole forty-eight.”