On Political Satire

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On January 4, 1928, Will Rogers, the era’s renowned cowboy comedian-columnist, led a radio hookup that featured participants all across the country, including the famous Al Jolson and the influential Paul Whiteman and his orchestra. It is interesting that both Jolson and Whiteman profoundly inspired many Americans (from Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday to Dick Clark and Bing Crosby) to launch their talents on the public stage. Whiteman was known as the “King of Jazz” while Jolson provided a sense of common identity and respect between minorities, immigrants and “Anglo-Saxons” through his black-face performances. Derided now, Jolson was loved across the demographics then. Will Rogers led this colorful gathering of talent to advertise Dodge automobiles.

As he continued the broadcast, in his characteristic drawl, he said, “Radio fans, I have a friend in Washington who on account of what the Automobiles have done for his Economy wants to speak to you, Mr. Coolidge, all right Mr. Coolidge go ahead…”

Rogers then employed a clever impersonation of the President’s “Vermont twang” and style of expression, ribbing Coolidge with this nonsensical series of comments:

     Ladies and Gentlemen, I am supposed to deliver a message every year on the condition of the country, I find the County as a WHOLE prosperous. I don’t mean by that, that the WHOLE country is prosperous, But as a WHOLE, its prosperous, That is its prosperous as a WHOLE. A WHOLE is not supposed to be prosperous, There is not a WHOLE lot of doubt about that…

Rogers, continuing to replicate Coolidge’s voice went on to political events in succinct and casual snippets, mentioning Mellon at Treasury, the Congress, “Smart Boy” Dwight Morrow and “Lindberg.” Rogers wrapped it up with a reference to Coolidge’s “I do not choose to run” statement from the previous year and how Prohibition was going.

All seemed fine until a few days later when Rogers dined at the home of Speaker Nicholas and his wife, Alice Roosevelt Longworth. To Rogers’ shock he learned of a New York Times piece chastising the comedian for “going too far” when it came to Presidential satire. He had even confused and angered some listeners who took issue with a President endorsing Dodge vehicles. Immediately, he sent a profuse letter of apology to both Mr. and Mrs. Coolidge, ending with the line with characteristic lack of punctuation, “If there ever was a sad Comedian, I am one, and I do ask all the forgiveness that its in your and Mrs. Coolidges power to give, Yours most respectfully, Will Rogers.”

The President, who responded to criticism directed at him the previous year for wearing that silly cowboy outfit including customized chaps with, “It is good for people to laugh,” wrote this kind and sensible reply to the ashamed comedian:

     THE WHITE HOUSE

     Washington

                                                                                                      January 11, 1928

     My dear Mr. Rogers:-

     Your letter has just come to me. I hope it will cheer you up to know that I thought the matter of rather small consequence myself though the office was informed from several sources that I had been on the air. I wish to assure you that your note makes it all plain that you had no intention save harmless amusement.

     I hope you will not give the affair another troubled thought. I am well aware how nicely you have referred to me so many times.

                                                                                                      Cordially yours,

                                                                                                      Calvin Coolidge

As Lawrence E. Wikander, former Curator of the Coolidge Room at Forbes Library, has noted in his article, “Will Rogers and Calvin Coolidge” in The Real Calvin Coolidge, volume 13, “Even a slight acquaintance with the President would convince one that would not send such a warm letter if he were offended” (p.14). Yet that is exactly what biographers have done since 1939! Each seems oblivious to this letter and Coolidge’s explicit dismissal of any offense taken. Such is one of the many persistent Coolidge myths to continue in spite of the facts.

As Mr. Wikander points out, Rogers not only considered the matter closed…he would impersonate Coolidge again and in the coming years after the White House regularly chided Coolidge with public satire. They would meet in March of 1930 at the dedication of Coolidge Dam in Arizona and remain clearly on the warmest of terms.

This obscure incident of political satire from eighty-five years ago illustrates how far the culture has gone. Instead of continuing the progress evident in Coolidge’s day, the culture has become more restrictive, seemingly incapable of laughing at itself, “choosing” to take offense rather than embracing the healthy sense of proportion that events warrant.

It is forgotten what a long road of passionate political expression has been traversed in our country. When President Washington received Chief Justice Jay back from Great Britain following the negotiation of an unpopular treaty with the recently vanquished “Mother Country,” Jay observed he could travel back to the capital by the lights of likenesses of him burned in effigy. Everything from death threats to obscene acts were directed against President Bush, an experience shared by numerous Presidents before him.

Infinitely less has been done by the rodeo clown at the Missouri State Fair. Yet, in spite of the enthusiastic reaction from those who were in the audience…it is “racist,” “hateful” and “intolerant” to lampoon the President. Apparently he is to be held above criticism, however comedic. It is a grave loss to our liberty when political correctness is awarded the power to silence the most harmless of satirical performances while destroying the individual who utters anything not approved by government authorities. What is left of our freedom to express political opinion when satire is no longer allowed?

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One thought on “On Political Satire

  1. Obama could learn something from this. There have been caricature masks made of presidents for decades. As one person told me recently, “From the birth of this country, it has been the right of every legal US resident to make fun of the president.”

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