Saturday, June 4, 2011

Book Review: WILL ROGERS, A POLITICAL LIFE by Richard D. White, Jr. (Texas Tech University Press, 2011)

Will Rogers is well remembered as a sort of pop-culture Renaissance man of the early 20th century: a comedian, a cowboy, a vaudevillian, a successful movie star and radio performer, and a "bark-off" commentator on social and political issues. With modern-day celebrities constantly using Twitter and other social media to comment on issues, there is a temptation to regard Rogers as a very similar figure, only using an earlier generation of technology. Richard White argues that the real Rogers was a far more serious opinion leader than your bog-standard pop singer opining on global warming or the latest doings in Chechnya. Forging relationships with Presidents of both parties, circling the globe on multiple occasions, reaching millions through newspaper columns and telegrams, and even acting as an ambassador without portfolio as far away as Manchuria during the 1931 Japanese incursion, Rogers was an effective advocate for his positions -- whether they be development of the American aviation industry, help for suffering farmers, opposition to American intervention in foreign countries, or opposition to Prohibition -- precisely because he knew how to reduce complex issues to simple terms while still respecting the intelligence of his readers and listeners. Rogers got his fair share of criticism for his folksy, grammatically challenged approach to discussing issues, but it resonated with an America that was becoming steadily more urban, yet still spiritually centered in the rural small town.

One way in which Rogers differs from the Internet pundits and talk-show hosts of today is that he was generally a moderating influence on the public debate. Though a Democrat, he didn't hesitate to poke fun at his own side when he felt it was deserved. He also shunned extremism at a time when the economic catastrophe of the Depression had sent many Americans on a search for "better" economic and political systems. (He did have nice things to say about Mussolini, but then, a lot of deep thinkers of the 1920s regarded the "efficient" Italian version of fascism with the same starry-eyed admiration that Thomas Friedman, for one, has been known to bestow upon China.) White makes no attempt to compare Rogers to present-day figures of similar stature, a rather major omission in my view. The "Palace Guard Comedians" who mock only one political party and the talk-show hosts who invite only guests who agree with them onto their shows would do well to adopt Rogers as a role model.

Though it too easily devolves into a "year-by-year travelogue format," this is a good introduction to the political side of Will Rogers and an interesting read for those wishing to learn more about the intellectual and cultural history of the teens, 20s, and 30s.

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