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Humorist Will Rogers' presidential teasing crossed party lines

Humorist and Oklahoma native Will Rogers famously said that he never met a man he didn't like.

But judging by his writings, Rogers likely also never met anyone whom he didn't think could use a gentle ribbing. Among the targets of Rogers' wit were presidents of all parties.

But unlike nearly anyone else in his own time or today, Rogers had an ability to tease without alienating, said Tad Jones, executive director of the Will Rogers Memorial Museums in Claremore and Oologah.

Despite the barbs he threw at presidents and congressmen, Rogers remained popular among Americans of all political stripes, and he
was a featured speaker at both Democratic and Republican presidential conventions, Jones said.

"He didn't do anything with malice," Jones said. "They all knew he was joking."

Rogers first performed before a U.S. president in 1916, when President Woodrow Wilson was in the audience at Rogers' vaudeville show. When Wilson died in 1924, Rogers wrote, “I lost the most distinguished person who ever laughed at my little nonsensical jokes."

Jones said Rogers worked hard to build credibility over his career with politicians, captains of industry and regular Americans. Although he would occasionally single out one powerful person for ridicule, most of his jokes were broader and dealt with the institution of the presidency, Congress or industry, Jones said.

At the height of Rogers' popularity, most Americans were dedicated readers of his newspaper column and listened to his radio performances, Jones said. Nearly everyone wanted to hear his thoughts on any number of topics, including the presidency.

“He was literally in everybody's living room in some form or fashion for a good 15 years or so," Jones said.

At a glance

Will Rogers on presidents

"We shouldn’t elect a President; we should elect a magician." — May 26, 1930

"We elect our Presidents, be they Republican or Democrat, then go home and start daring ’em to make good." — April 1, 1935

"There are people so excited over this election that they think the President has something to do with running this country." — October 30, 1932

"The Senate just sits and waits till they find out what the President wants so they know how to vote against him." — June 30, 1930

"I can’t see any advantage of having one of your own Party in as President... . I would rather be able to criticize a man than to have to apologize for him." — March 18, 1923

"I don’t know of any quicker way in the world to be forgotten in this country than to be defeated for President." — July 6, 1924

"How in the world can [the President] guarantee what Congress will do? There is not even a fortune teller would dare predict." — September 24, 1933

"The latest papers say that 'It’s up to the President now.' Is there anything difficult under than sun that’s not put up to that man?" — June 7, 1934

Other musings

•Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt (1901-09) was the first president Will wrote about. When he died Will wrote, “We lost Roosevelt. If we can spare men like Roosevelt and Wilson, there is no use in any other politician ever taking himself serious.”

•He was complimentary of William Howard Taft (1909-13) and on his death wrote, “Mr. Taft will go to his grave with more real downright affection and less enemies than anyone. He always seemed like he was one of us.”

•Woodrow Wilson (1913-21) was the first sitting president to watch Will on stage. “I lost the most distinguished person who ever laughed at my little nonsensical jokes,” he wrote when Wilson died.

•Warren Harding (1921-23) a short-termer, was the subject of Will’s third syndicated column. “The president gave a luncheon for the visiting governors when they discussed, but didn’t try prohibition.”

•Calvin Coolidge (1923-29) was in office when Will attended his first party convention in 1924. He was at the dedication of Hoover Dam and with Coolidge present and said, “The president didn’t do anything, but that’s what we wanted.”        

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Silas Allen

Silas Allen is a news reporter for The Oklahoman. He is a Missouri native and a 2008 graduate of the University of Missouri. Read more ›