by Paul R. Spitzzeri
He was one of America’s best known celebrities in the late 1920s, with dozens of films, hundreds of newspaper columns, several books, and a nearly 200-acre ranch in Pacific Palisades to his name. Moreover, long before Stephen Colbert’s brief “run” during the 2008 presidential campaign or Pat Paulsen’s longer bid in 1968, Will Rogers was the comedian who set the table for his descendants with his tongue-in-cheek, but perceptive satirical bid for the highest office in the 1928 election cycle.
Rogers was born in 1879 in what was designated as the last sovereign territory for Native Americans in the United States, later called Oklahoma, and had Cherokee ancestry. Though he had little formal education and worked as a cowboy and a vaudeville performer mixing roping skills and his razor-sharp, but folksy humor, Rogers became a superstar by the 1920s. He lived in Beverly Hills as it became a colony filled with film stars and then acquired his large ranch, which included a polo field, stables, trails and a second home.
Sponsored in his campaign by the long-running Life magazine, Rogers used his considerable home-spun talents to crusade for the “Anti-Bunk Party,” with the word “bunk” then meaning nonsense (or any number of synonyms.) Rogers issued such pronouncements as “whatever the other fellow don’t do, we will,” “our support will have to come from those who want nothing and have the assurance of getting it,” and “no matter what’s on our platform now, on November 6 [election day] we will have a bonfire and burn the platform.” He also pledged that, if elected, he would immediately resign.
In the 12 October 1928 edition of Life, Rogers’ column was titled “Our Candidate Won’t Sling Mud” and it started out with “well the campaign is degenerating into just what I thought it would,” though “it started out to be honorable,” even if honesty was “just as much lost” as with the platform of Democrat John W. Davis, who lost badly to Calvin Coolidge, four years prior. Rogers went on to note that “it was a ‘noble experiment’ but it just dident [sic] bring home any soup bones.”
Observing that the candidates began the campaign by “whispering,” Rogers noted “Al [Smith, the Democratic nominee in 1928] can’t whisper” because “he has a bass voice, and anytime he whispers he is shouting.” For that matter, “we was all hearing so many whispers that it begin to look like everybody that spoke to you had lost their voice.” So, Rogers went on, “we layed [sic] it to bad colds for awhile, then we discovered that everybody couldent [sic] have Phenomonia at once.” Therefore, he cracked, “it finally dawned on us that is was ‘Scandal.'” And with that, because scandal was so frequent found in politics “a thing has to to be mighty scandalous to be worth repeating.”
He then observed that “the funny things about it was the things that they had been whispering was not as bad as the things they had been saying out loud, but it was just the idea of whispering that made everybody sore. So they quite whispering and started saying worse things at the top of their voice.” Rogers took Smith to task for applying “the soft pedal on whispers down in the old home State of Oklahoma and asked “why he picked on us” because “we wasent [sic] the originators of bed linen for wearing apparel.”
On the other hand, he joked, “it’s not Klansmen that are making us look funny in Oklahoma, it’s Republicans.” Rogers then wrote that “the State was originally layed [sic] out and settled by Democrats . . . [but] being a new Country and needing some money to develop it why we had to do some borrowing, so there is where the Republicans got in. They made the loans, and took care of the foreclosures, and now we can’t get ’em out for they own everything.”
When Smith, however, spoke in the Sooner State, “Al made the boys a mighty good talk there and they treated him like a Gentleman which was unusual treatment for a Politician.” That oration, though, was to Rogers “kinder what you would call the starting of the open air scandal, Right then Scandal went from a whisper to a shout, and now they are at it hammer and tongs.” While Republican candidate Herbert Hoover “won’t answer any of it,” one of his advisors, Republican National Committee chairman Hubert Work “is so busy heaving back denials and cooking up new ones” that if Hoover “had expended as much energy in his Cabinet position as that, we would have been out of debt.” Meanwhile, Senator Pro Tempore George Moses (“not the Lawmaker,” cracked Rogers) of New Hampshire was “the second line of denial for the Republicans.”
As for the Democrats and employing a boxing analogy, Rogers offered that “what Al can’t think of to call ’em, why [John] Raskob [chair of the Democratic National Committee] in his corner is throwing everything but the sponge at ’em.” The comedian then joked that “if a Republican shows himself to him, Raskob will hit him over the head with a Buick.” To all of this tomfoolery, Rogers countered, “Oh it’s a Gentleman’s game???” where “everything is of a ‘high type” until “the time comes when there is something worth while to be little over, then they revert to type.”
There was, however, the fact that “through all this the old Anti-Bunk Party has maintained its dignity” as “we are not running about the Country showing in everybody’s ear, ‘As I said so ably in my acceptance speech.'” This was because Rogers “dident say anything in our acceptance speech. We dident even accept, and at that we said more than they did.” For that matter, Hoover and Smith “can always bring up their acceptance speech for that is as far back as they want their record looked into while the Campaign is going on.”
The humorist concluded that “I do hope that there is some voters who appreciate a Candidate who has not dragged in Religion, Prohibition, Water Power, neither hot or cold, Corruption, Brown Derbys, or social superiority of wives.” After all, he cracked, “I have a wife that could study an Emily Post Guide [to etiquette] for three days, and make a sucker out of every Senator and his wife that ever stuck their nose inside the White House.”
For its part, the editors of Life offered their own “Anti-Bunk Bulletin” lamenting that “we confess that we’re beginning to get a trifle worried about the Will Rogers-for-President Campaign” because “our Candidate is attracting too many darned voters” which made the magazine’s situation “positively embarrassing, because we don’t know what to do with all the unexpected guests.” On the other hand, the good folks at Life offered that “we know we could sell them, and at fancy prices, to the Republicans and Democrats” as “both those organizations need voters a lot more than we do.” The difference was that “we’re not in politics for what we can get out of it.” Rather, “we’re in it solely for what can kick out of it; namely, Bunk.”
Reminding readers of the immortal words of Rogers when he mounted his campaign about wanting the support of those who wanted nothing and would be sure to get it, the magazine offered to continue sending Rogers campaign buttons to those who wrote in but warned “these buttons are nothing more than souvenirs of a Noble Experiment, and they will not entitle their holders to any special consideration after Election Day.”
It advised those wanting an ambassadorship or the job of Mabel Walker Willebrandt, the pioneering woman Assistant Attorney General with a Los Angeles-area pedigree with the thankless job of enforcing Prohibition and a vociferous Hoover supporter “or get into the Department of the Interior where the oil leases are kept,” a crack at the Teapot Dome scandal involving Los Angeles oil tycoon Edward L. Doheny, to “stay away from the Anti-Bunk Party.” After all, the piece ended, Rogers wasn’t going to give good position to those who voted for him. Instead, “he is going to violate all political precedent by giving the jobs to those best qualified to fill them.”
An editorial elsewhere in the magazine pointed to an opinion by the president of Dartmouth College “over the degeneration of the campaign into a mud-slinging contest, a misfortune for which the Democrats must bear most of the blame.” Although the G.O.P. started the warring, assisted by Southern Democrats who were against Smith, Life castigated the Democrats because they “knew it was coming from the moment they nominated a wet [anti-Prohibition] Catholic New Yorker, and they would have been wiser not to reply.”
Observing that the Republicans used propaganda with great effectiveness, the magazine noted “so far the lies told by Democrats have been promptly and publicly refuted,” though the G.O.P.’s fibs “are better planned and take a good deal more running down.” It was added that “it was incredibly stupid to reply to attacks on Smith’s religion with attacks on Hoover’s religion. The magazine continued that “some Quakers and some Catholics would be dangerous presidents, as would be some Methodists and some Mormons; but everyone knows that Hoover is not that kid of Quaker and Smith is not that kind of Catholic.” It did, say, however, that “the Democrats should have considered . . that there are a thousand people who fear Catholics for every one who fears Quakers.” It was bad strategy “to make any votes out of a contest of bigotry” and the Dems should have obtained “what comfort they could out of ethical superiority.”
The editorial noted that Republicans had mouthpieces like Willebrandt and religious leaders who were “egregious,” but the Democrats ‘have done their best” which led to the conclusion that “if intolerance is what is wanted, as apparently it is, we had better stick to the Grand Old Party that knows how to manufacture it in quantity.” It characterized Smth as “devoting so much energy to defending his personal character,” while Hoover was “hiding behind his collar” and affecting distance from attacks on his rival.
There was also a fascinating discussion of Hubert Work’s attempts to characterize the economic consequences of buying on the installment plan in a speech given recently. In the address, Work noted that people were in debt buying cars, houses, radios, washing machines and other big ticket items that that these Americans “have laid wagers on continued prosperity, on continued profits, on continued employment.” If there was any end to “the endless chain of prosperity” then “this whole structure of personal credit will collapse and bury millions beneath it with hardship unprecedented.”
The magazine observed that, if the chain was snapped, it would be worse than the Depression of 1873 and “nor does anyone know how we can get rid of that chain, now that we have it tightly fastened around us.” The problem was that, while goods were sold, they were “not yet paid for.” It noted that Work had a solution for strains on that chain; namely, “the need of a higher and higher and still higher protective tariff.” Of course, the Great Depression was just a year off and these words were prescient for such later economic collapses as what was experienced in 2008.
There are a few excellent cartoons accompanying these articles, including one of a grinning Rogers watching an elephant and donkey, representing the two parties, “slinging mud;” another called “The Whispering Campaign” and showing a football team in a tight huddle; and a third, beautifully drawn, showing Rogers riding the Anti-Bunk bucking bronco while Hoover and Smith, selling balloons and “Red Hot Baloney” point to him with the query “Now, why didn’t we think of that?”
Many other items of interest can be found in the magazine, including fiction; humor; a column by the well-known Walter Winchell called “Along the Main Stem; observations on sports; news of the theatre by renowned critic Robert Benchley; reflection on the radio; reviews of recent films; and more. There are also many great advertisements with a couple of samples reproduced here.
This issue of Life and its political content for the upcoming election and the novelty of Rogers’ camp campaign is particularly noteworthy, even though the crusade against “bunk” was, of course, a quixotic one then and now. Hoover went on to a landslide victory over Smith, the third such resounding triumph for Republicans in the decade, following major victories by Warren Harding in 1920 and Calvin Coolidge four years later, though the tide was turned in 1932 during the depths of the Depression and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s win over Hoover.