By Philip Scranton
Writing nationally syndicated columns for the New York Times and hosting regular radio broadcasts, Will Rogers was a busy cowboy humorist in June 1932.
Arriving early at Chicago’s Congress Hotel for the Republican convention, he began interviewing congressmen.
“Well, I couldn’t find out a thing about politics,” he wrote. “Nobody here knows they are holding a convention. There is lots of flags out, but Tuesday is Al Capone’s birthday, so who knows?”
The keynote address kicked off the usual rounds of back-slapping, but Rogers had sympathy for the speaker, Iowa Representative Lester Dickinson.
“He has the toughest job of any of them ever,” he wrote. “If he points to accomplishments, he is sunk, and if he views with alarm, he is sunk, so we are liable to get two solid hours on the weather. The wet lobbyists have taken over the whole convention. They give you a badge and a drink. Lots of us don’t know what to do with all the badges.”
Revising or repealing Prohibition paralyzed the Republican Party and yielded a convoluted platform plank.
“The resolutions committee just got a dictionary apiece and found all the possible phrases and words that don’t mean anything, then got ’em together and called it a resolution,” he wrote. “It’s dry in the morning and becomes wetter as the afternoon wears on.”
The Democrats felt the tip of Rogers’s sharp pen, too. He complained that at first they were acting like Republicans.
“There wasn’t an argument in a carload,” he wrote. “Cheered everything: hissed nothing -- why it made me almost ashamed to be a Democrat.”
Kentucky Senator Alben Barkley went on for “three volumes,” he wrote.
“But it had to be a long speech, for when you start enumerating the things that the Republicans have got away with in the last 12 years, you have cut yourself quite a job.”
When Repeal triumphed as a platform plank, he asked:
“Did the Democrats go wet? No, they just layed right down and wallowed in it. They left all their clothes on the bank and dived in without even a bathing suit. They are wetter than an organdie dress at a rainy day picnic.”
Yet one problem remained.
“There wasn’t a thing that the people would listen to -- only prohibition. Any kind of economic reform plank or amendment met with `Boo!'''
Meanwhile, Will Rogers was running for Congress in the Democratic primary -- Will Rogers, the 32-year-old schoolteacher from Moore, Oklahoma, that is. He topped the ticket in the first-round ballot and was set to face Mabel Bassett, the state charities commissioner, in the runoff, when the losers asked the courts to exclude him as a poser.
The commentator Rogers, learning of this, endorsed his namesake.
“He has shown more ingenuity already than any candidate I ever heard of. . . . I tell you this bird is smart. In fact, he will be plum out of place in Congress. So let’s all get behind `Will Rogers for Congress.’”
Rogers, the teacher, rolled up a 125,000-vote margin two weeks later.
(Philip Scranton is a Board of Governors professor of the History of Industry and Technology at the University of Rutgers at Camden and the editor-in-chief of Enterprise and Society. He writes "This Week in the Great Depression" for the Echoes blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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