Will Rogers said a lot of mean things about Washington, but Washington never seemed to mind. Not in his own day and not in ours, either.
Last night at Ford's theatre, for instance, Sen. Henry Bellmon (R-Okla.) read a congressional resolution in Rogers' honor, and Postmaster General William F. Bolger unveiled a new stamp -- the second -- with Rogers' mug on it. Rogers would be 100 years old on Sunday if he happened to be alive, and Bolger, like Bellmon, comes from Oklahoma, where indifference to Will Rogers is just about a capital offense.
After Bolger had handed out a few blowups of the new stamp -- one to Frankie Hewett, the Oklahoman who runs Ford's Theatre, and one to James Whitmore, who comes from White Plains, N.Y., but has been standing in for the "cowboy philosopher" these last few years -- the postmaster general turned to the audience. "For those of you who have not been fortunate enough to receive one of these enlargements," he said, "I'd like to remind you that a handsome miniature goes on sale at post offices everywhere starting Monday."
Whitmore, a splendid actor and a charming man, also added a touch of apparently spontaneous humor. "Mr. Rogers was very uncomfortable with presentations and honors," he said. But "I certainly thank you from the bottom of my heart because I'm not that big a man. I love this stuff."
In short, the umpteenth coming of "Will Rogers' USA" was a regular love fest. Only one element in the proceedings failed to live up to the general level of hilarity -- namely Will Rogers himself.
When a man gets to be 100, even in the deceased subjunctive, the time is at hand for a calm reappraisal of his contributions. And it's all the more timely when the man has become a national monument, because the nation has room for only so many monuments, and who knows who else is being kept waiting for what might be a more deserved monumenthood?
To begin on a conciliatory note, so as to disarm the opposition: There are reasons for the widespread delusion that Will Rogers was funny. He possessed -- and Whitmore has magnificently recreated -- a terrific softball pitcher's comic delivery, capable of eliciting all the known, pre-punch line, Pavlovian responses.
The delivery was and remains so convincing, in fact, that audiences tended to overlook the content of the punch lines themselves.
Now, any man who devotes his adult years to the pursuit of pithy, down-home observations on life and mores is bound to hit a target now and then, if only by the law of averages.
"Half of our life," said Rogers, "is spent trying to find something to do with the time we have rushed through life trying to save."
And rogers occasionally saw and exposed the sham of contemporary people and events. "Everybody I come into contact with is doing well, said his version of Calvin Coolidge, delivering a fictitious State of the Union address. "They have to be doing well, or they don't come into contact with me."
But as a rule Rogers' jokes came in two varieties: those that made a certain sense and had no element of surprise, and those that were vaguely surprising, because they made no sense.
To illustrate the first sort, here is Rogers on taxation: "Where is all this money that the opposition wants to spend? Well, I don't know where it's going to come from but I kind of reckon it's going to come from them that's got it." Or, continuing on the same theme: "They've got no income tax in Russia, but they've got no income."
And to illustrate the second sort, here is Rogers, on his visit to Nice. "That's in France. Now, it's not spelled 'Neese,' it's spelled 'Nice.' But there's no such word as nice in the whole French language." Or, on a visit to Rome: "I learned from Mussolini that they used to have senators in Rome, and now we know why it declined."
In the confusion of his non-stop delivery, listeners naturally assumed that both qualities -- sense and surprise -- were present simultaneously. And so they laughed. And so we go right laughing. But another part of our nervous system tells us that there is something critically missing.
Will Rogers, obviously, learned a trick or two from Mark Twain. He learned that there were vast comic possibilities in pretending to be a know-nothing. But where Twain only affected ignorance, Rogers sometimes celebrated it. "There's no such thing in the motion pictures as a Greta Garbo," he said. "Marlene Dietrich plays both parts."
Politicians were the butt of a plurality of Rogers' jokes. "When a man gets into politics," he once said, "it just naturally spoils him for any honest work the rest of his life." But the politicians somehow understood that he didn't mean it personally. After all, Rogers was the man who had never met a man he didn't like.
Perhaps if he had looked at people a bit more closely, he would have found a few worth disliking. And if he had, perhaps he would have been funnier -- maybe even funny enough to be put on a stamp.