Tony Deyal | Where there's a will
"I don't make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts." This is one of the many still valid and well-known quips by William Penn Adair 'Will' Rogers (November 4, 1879-August 15, 1935), a stage and motion picture actor, cowboy, humorist, newspaper columnist and comedian at large.
His biting commentaries on politics and government, delivered as homespun humour, made Will Rogers a household name. Despite his mixed race and his insistence that he was a Cherokee Indian, Will was adored by the American people and was the leading political wit of his time, as well as the highest paid Hollywood star.
In fact, he combined both his wit and acting in a memorable joke, "I'm not a real movie star. I've still got the same wife I started out with 28 years ago."
Wikipedia states that as an entertainer and humorist, Will travelled around the world three times, made 71 movies (50 silent films and 21 'talkies'), and wrote more than 4,000 nationally syndicated newspaper columns. He died in a plane crash in 1935.
Blogger Susan Doll, film buff and Will Rogers fan, wrote in 2010 that although Rogers had died 75 years before "in this era of divisive politics and an exhausted citizenry, his name keeps popping up". She asked, "When Ya Comin' Back, Will Rogers?" Now in 2018, in the era of Donald Trump, Rogers and his views on American politics are even more important.
Here are some priceless ones: "Things in our country run in spite of government, not by aid of it." "The more you observe politics, the more you've got to admit that each party is worse than the other." "Alexander Hamilton started the US Treasury with nothing, and that was the closest our country has ever been to being even." And, given the present preoccupation with Mueller and the Russian links to Donald Trump's election, "About all I can say for the United States Senate is that it opens with a prayer and closes with an investigation."
Trump's America is not the only country (or era) relevant to the wit and wisdom of Will Rogers. Wherever versions of democracy are preached or practised, his observations are funny and accurate. For example, "The short memories of the American voters is what keeps our politicians in office."
We Caribbean folk will readily admit that this is one arena in which we can successfully compete with the Yankees. We can also hold our own in terms of expenditure on elections, not in total spending, but in the proportion spent and, of course, in the payback to the 'donors'.
We, too, are well aware that money is the mother's milk of politics and that was as true in the 1930s even during the Great Depression in the US as it is now. Rogers observed, "Politics has become so expensive that it takes a lot of money even to be defeated." He added, "A fool and his money are soon elected."
It also takes a lot of institutions. As Rogers said, "Ancient Rome declined because it had a Senate; now what's going to happen to us with both a Senate and a House?" This is a question that the independent countries of the Caribbean should have been asking a long time ago. We should also ask, "If stupidity got us into this mess, how come it can't get us out?"
One line I have always used is that the only jokes I stay far away from are political jokes, mainly because most of them end up being elected and some, funnily enough, end up as presidents and prime ministers.
Will Rogers observed almost 90 years ago, "Everything is changing. People are taking their comedians seriously, and the politicians as a joke, when it used to be vice versa." He also discovered something I learnt as a columnist commenting on national and regional affairs, "There's no trick to being a humorist when you have the entire government working for you."
It tends to make you cynical enough to come up with observations like, "If you ever injected truth into politics, you have no politics." Or: "It's getting so if a man wants to stand well socially, he can't afford to be seen with either the Democrats or the Republicans." And: "We all joke about Congress but we can't improve on them. Have you noticed that no matter who we elect, he is just as bad as the one he replaces?" Perhaps this is why in Trinidad and Tobago, and increasingly in the rest of the region, we are into one-term governments.
It would have been really interesting to witness the inevitable collision between Will Rogers and Donald Trump, perhaps the most thin-skinned president of all time who, CNN says, has a long history of attacking Native Americans. It is possible that Will Rogers might tell the Donald, "Never miss a good chance to shut up."
Then there is this one that will hit Trump in two places simultaneously, "The income tax has made liars out of more Americans than golf." This might be the most accurate arrow of all: "A politician is just like a pickpocket; it's almost impossible to get one to reform."
When it comes to the present evolving Washington scenario, Rogers was on the ball: "The Democrats and the Republicans are equally corrupt where money is concerned. It's only in the amount where the Republicans excel."
It is not only his lampooning of politics and politicians that made Will Rogers popular and loved. For example, his comment on diplomacy remains a classic.
He described it as "the art of saying 'nice doggie' until you can find a rock". He warned against inaction: "Even if you're on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there."
Reacting to changing times, especially women's clothing or the lack of it, he quipped, "I never expected to see the day when girls would get sunburned in the places they do today." While one of his slogans was, "Make crime pay; become a lawyer" my favourite is, "Live in such a way that you would not be ashamed to sell your parrot to the town gossip."
- Tony Deyal was last seen quoting Will Rogers, "There are three kinds of men. The one that learns by reading. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves."