Will Rogers: For the Anniversary of His Death

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Will Rogers died in a plane crash up in Alaska on this day 84 years ago. I’m not at all certain that younger readers, should there be any, will recognize his name. It would be a shame if his name is lost to them; he was a keeper. Canny, likeable, smart, and keenly perceptive. We could use a guy like him now, and I’m damned if I can think of one.

The title of this piece contains an allusion to “For the Anniversary of My Death,” a W.S. Merwin poem. Merwin died on the 15th of March of this year. (Here’s a link to that poem https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=45ePUcm9cu4) though the guy reciting it isn’t Merwin.) I doubt many readers know Merwin’s name. Americans don’t read much poetry, and names of poets aren’t generally known in the way reality show “stars” are.

I also thought of calling this piece “… Waiting to Find out What Price You Have to Pay to Get Out of Going Through All These Things Twice,” an allusion to a line in an early Bob Dylan song, but the tone didn’t seem to fit what I’m trying to say. Nor am I at all sure younger readers will know even Dylan’s name, though he, too, was, and is, a keeper and, like Rogers, a distinctly American voice.

I also thought about calling this piece “Déjà vu All Over Again,” a quote with a redundancy built into it, said to be from Yogi Berra, the great Yankee catcher and master of malaprops. I’m fairly sure younger readers won’t know his name unless they’re avid baseball fans with a fascination for the history of the sport. I’d also thought of using the French cliché “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” as my title. You might know that phrase, but even if you don’t, I won’t bother translating it, just to be annoying.

The point of all that, I guess, is that we all come and we all go. Most of us are forgotten, along with the best things we said or did on our best days, as are the worst things we said or did on our worst.

Will Rogers came and he went, but some of his words remain. His comments on the passing parade of his day can offer some measure of solace or comfort in their familiar feel, the kinship they offer across the decades and from beyond the grave. They also give us a perspective on how things can repeat themselves as human beings muddle through challenging times with troublesome leaders.

Will Rogers is one of my heroes. I’ve read several books about this cowboy from Oklahoma with Cherokee blood flowing through his veins, a guy who was much more remarkable than I’d imagined. If you’re interested, there are surely worse ways to spend your time than reading one of the biographies written about him.

In lieu of that, however, or more immediately, what follows are some things Rogers wrote or said that are damn near eerie in how much they fit our own times.

For instance, he wrote: As a young boy, I didn’t know a Republican from a Democrat, only in one way: If some man or bunch of men rode up to the ranch to sit or stay all night, and my father set me to watching ’em all the time they was there — what they did and what they carried off — I learned they were Republicans. …”

In advance of the presidential election of 1932, Rogers wrote about the Republican Platform for that year. “I don’t think they done so bad,” he said. “Everybody’s broke but them.” Hoover, the Republican who had steered the nation into the economic collapse that created the Great Depression, lost in a landslide to Franklin Roosevelt.

Right around that same time, Rogers said, “Republicans have always been the party of big business; the Democrats of small business. So you just take your pick. The Democrats have their eye on a dime, and the Republicans on a dollar.”

In view of our worries about Russians (or Republicans) rigging the next election (or the last one), try this on for size. Rogers wrote: “I hope some of the men who get the most votes will be elected.” I’d say that observation is still more relevant than we’d like it to be, as is this one: “The whole trouble with the Republicans is their fear of an increase in income tax, especially on higher incomes.”

He also contributed this still-pertinent observation: “A lobbyist is a person that is supposed to help a politician make up his mind–not only help him, but pay him.”

And, he wrote: “We won’t ever understand why Mexico wasn’t crazy about us. We have always had their goodwill, oil, coffee, and minerals at heart.”

And he wrote: “Woe to be a weak nation if they live by a strong one.”

And, “When the big nations quit meddling, then the world will have peace.”

And, “The difference between a bandit and a patriot is a good press agent.”

Or, how about this quote: “When you get in trouble 5000 miles from home,” Rogers wrote, “you’ve got to have been looking for it.” Remind you of anything?

Or, “There is no argument in the world that carries the hatred that a religious belief one does.”

Or, “They were very religious people that come over here from the old country. They were very human. They would shoot a couple of Indians on their way to every prayer meeting.”

And, in view of my blog about Allan Dershowitz from yesterday, how about this Rogers’ observation: “Personally, I don’t think you can make a lawyer honest by an act of the legislature. You’ve got to work on his conscience, and lack of conscience is what makes him a lawyer.”

Rogers also said: “When a fellow don’t have much mind, it don’t take him long to make it up.” That made me think of a Trump rally, and I envisioned, with sadness, the image of Donald Trump when I read this one: “Anything is just as good as the head of it, and no better.”

And, this one, too, made me think of Trump: “No man is great if he thinks he is.”

The best-remembered quote Will Rogers left us is the one in which he said: “I never met a man I didn’t like.”

But he never met anyone quite like the 45th President of the United States. And, though I’ve met more than a few bad people, neither have I.

Have you?


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