Magazine article The Washington Monthly

What Will Rogers Could Teach the Age of Limbaugh

Magazine article The Washington Monthly

What Will Rogers Could Teach the Age of Limbaugh

Article excerpt

A voice of selflessness and consensus might sound out of place today, but without one, nothing we need to do will get done

No money, no banks, no work, no nothing, but they know they got a man in there who is wise to Congress, wise to our big bankers, and wise to our so-called big men. The whole country is with him. Even if what he does is wrong, they are with him. Just so he does something. If he burned down the Capitol, we would cheer and say, ~Well, at least we got a fire started somehow.

--Will Rogers on FDR's inauguration, 1933

This no-nonsense but generous welcome to the House was exactly what Franklin Roosevelt needed. After all, things in the country could hardly have been worse. When a writer for the Saturday Evening Post asked John Maynard Keynes if there had ever been anything like the Depression before, he replied, "Yes. It was called the Dark Ages, and it lasted four hundred years."

Of all that was said at the opening of the Roosevelt administration, it's striking that the most sensible words came not from a Brain Truster but from Rogers--a former cowboy rope twirler, star of the Ziegfeld Follies, and movie actor. Striking, but not surprising: In the early thirties, Rogers was the nation's most influential popular political and cultural voice, reaching 40 million Americans with his columns and radio commentaries. With wit and common sense, Rogers emphasized pulling together and extending a generous hand to those down on their luck. "These people that you are asked to aid, they are not asking for charity, they are naturally asking for a job. But if you can't give them a job, why the next best thing you can do is see that they have food and the necessities of life," Rogers said in a 1931 appeal for the unemployed, who then numbered 25 percent of the population. "You know, not a one of us has anything that these people that are without now haven't contributed to what we've got. There is not an unemployed man in the country that hasn't contributed to the wealth of every millionaire in America."

Delivered without sentimentality, this kind of message moved a country deeply skeptical that familiar institutions could work--a world not unlike our own. Americans then were as bewildered by the failure of banks, farms, and the market as we are now by schools, health care, and government itself. What separates us from them is that they pulled themselves out of their ditch and we remain stuck in ours, routinely registering despair with die state of the union. Sixty percent of Americans regularly tell pollsters the country is "on the wrong track."

This is not because there were better ideas or better policies in the past. There are plenty of sound programs around now on health care, entitlements, and education. Yet none seems likely to come about in the current political climate because we are missing what made America work from the thirties to the sixties: a willingness to concede the other side's point and to give up special advantages in order to advance a common good. Without that, all the reforms in the world will come to nothing.

If Rogers' successor as the country's most influential pop political voice--Rush Limbaugh--is any indication, that is exactly the dismal situation Americans now face. Limbaugh's reach is similar to Rogers': a weekly radio audience of 20 million, a nightly television show available to 99.82 percent of the nation's viewing households, and 400,000 subscribers to his monthly newsletter. But Limbaugh's tone and message is a world away from Rogers'--and a world away from generosity of spirit. Limbaugh, for example, greeted the Clinton inauguration on his TV show with an "America Held Hostage" graphic: "We are all imprisoned to the liberal idealism of the hippyish sixties, ladies and gentlemen," Limbaugh warned. "And every night we're going to remind you of it on this show."

The distinction is more than partisan: Rogers stuck up for the little guy and so tended to identify with Democrats, but he hit FDR and his party when they deserved hitting. …

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