The Humor—and Wisdom—of Will Rogers

Will Rogers observed life in America with a poignant combination of humility and self-confidence.

On this date in 1935—August 15—a man who made all of America laugh suddenly made the whole country cry. Will Rogers, beloved from coast to coast and by people of all political persuasions, died along with his friend Wiley Post in a plane crash near Barrow, Alaska. He was only 55.

Born in Oklahoma of Cherokee heritage in 1879, Rogers liked to joke that his ancestors didn’t arrive on the Mayflower but “they met the boat.” His life was as all-American as it gets. He deployed his talents and ambition to travel from modest means to a successful, multi-faceted career. He was all these things and did well at each one: stage actor and movie star (in 71 films); cowboy performer who could rope a steer and ride a bucking bronco as well as anybody; commentator (he wrote 4,000 newspaper columns); aviator, humorist, comedian, radio broadcaster, and speech maker.

Biographer Ben Yagoda wrote of him, “His earthy anecdotes and folksy style allowed him to poke fun at gangsters, prohibition, politicians, government programs, and a host of other controversial topics in a way that found general acclaim from a national audience with no one offended.”

Rogers observed life in America with a poignant combination of humility and self-confidence. “America is a land of opportunity and don’t ever forget it,” he once said. But he also was quick to deflate inflated egos with lines like “No man is great if he thinks he is,” and this one, which is among my favorites:

What constitutes a life well spent? Love and admiration from your fellow men is all that anyone can ask. We should never reach so high that we would ever forget those who helped us get there.

Though Rogers was a registered Democrat, he liked Calvin Coolidge as much as he did Franklin Roosevelt. He would likely be appalled at how partisan and politicized so much humor has become today. He ripped both major parties with good, clean humor and was consequently appreciated by Democrats and Republicans alike in the 1920s and 1930s.

He once ran a facetious campaign to get himself elected President, in 1928. He said he was the candidate of the “Anti-Bunk Party” and that if elected, he would resign. On Election Day, he declared victory and did as he promised. He resigned.

I share here with readers a hefty selection of Will Rogers’ comments on government and politics. I do so with a bit of nostalgia for the days when comedians were fair and balanced in their political humor, and funny without being filthy and offensive. Many of these quotes below can be found in Joseph Carter’s book, The Quotable Will Rogers; others are to be found in several good biographies, including Yagoda’s. Note not only the humor in them, but the wisdom too:

Remember, write to your congressman. Even if he can’t read, write to him.

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The papers say, “Congress is deadlocked and can’t act.” I think that is the greatest blessing that could befall this country.

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This country has come to feel the same when Congress is in session as when the baby gets hold of a hammer.

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Somebody is always telling us how to prevent war. There is only one way in the world to prevent war, and that is, for every nation to tend to its own business.

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Never blame a legislative body for not doing something. When they do nothing, they don’t hurt anybody. It’s when they do something that they get dangerous.

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No animal in the world gets quite as hungry as a Democrat. He would rather make a speech than a dollar.

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The United States Senate opens with a prayer and closes with an investigation.

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The Ways and Means Committee is supposed to find ways to divide up the means.

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The money we spend on government! And it’s not a bit better than we got for one-third the money two years ago.

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It must be nice to belong to some legislative body and just pick money out of the air.

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This country has gotten where it is in spite of politics, not by the aid of it. That we have carried as much political bunk as we have and still survived shows we are a super nation.

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There’s no trick to being a humorist when you have the whole government working for you. All you have to do is report the facts. I don’t even have to exaggerate. 

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Be thankful we’re not getting all the government we’re paying for.

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The income tax has made more liars out of the American people than golf has.

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Instead of giving money to colleges to promote learning, why don’t they pass a constitutional amendment prohibiting anybody from learning anything? If it works as good as the Prohibition one did, why, in five years we would have the smartest race of people on earth.

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Just raid the national treasury enough and you will soon be referred to as a “statesman.”

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We will never have true civilization until we have learned to recognize the rights of others.

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Be a politician—No Training Necessary.

More by Lawrence W. Reed