Magazine article Insight on the News

Congress: A Laughing Matter

Magazine article Insight on the News

Congress: A Laughing Matter

Article excerpt

For Mark Twain and Will Rogers, the idiosyncrasies of the U.S. political system, especially in Congress, provided an endless supply of fodder. American audiences laughed and loved both of them.

Mark Twain and Will Rogers, the two men generally acknowledged as America's greatest political humorists among public speakers, had a thing about the U.S. Congress: They didn't much like it. The federal legislature was at the receiving end of a lion's share of the best jibes leveled by both men at the political goings-on in the nation's capital, and their wit is remembered today, long after their deaths.

"It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native criminal class except Congress," Twain said again and again in the many lectures he gave to American and foreign audiences from the time he went on the lecture circuit regularly in the 1860s until his death in 1910. "Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself," he would say, to guffaws and applause. It was his favorite way of starting a lecture.

The homespun Rogers, a part-Cherokee cowboy, declared in his laconic way on his popular radio program and on the lecture circuit: "Congress is the best money can buy." His enormous audience--Rogers not only had a widely heard radio program but wrote a column syndicated in 350 newspapers -- loved it. Americans loved it too when he said: "I just watch the government and report the facts," adding that he always paid special attention to people elected to "misrun" Congress. Rogers was of the opinion that "politics ain't on the level" and that the government did its best job in the summer when senators and representatives fled Washington to avoid the heat.

The two humorists had more in common than their oft-stated contempt for Congress, however. Both were products of the frontier--Twain of Missouri where he was born in 1835 and Rogers of the great plains, having been born in Indian territory in Oklahoma in 1879.

Twain and Rogers shared a very American aversion to doctrinaire ideology of any kind, an aversion that sprang up frequently in their humor. And the humor of both men derived in large part from the vast gap between what America might be and often claimed to be--and what it really was, according to their views.

For Twain and Rogers, this gap was most apparent in politics--and in the words and actions of politicians, hence their most frequent subject. "Fleas can be taught nearly anything that a congressman can," Twain said at his most pessimistic. And Rogers, in his blackest humor, said in a 1933 radio broadcast: "Say, Mussolini could run this country with his eyes shut; in fact, that is the way our Congress has been running it."

Mark Twain, the nom de plume of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, was at the beginning of his writing career -- and far from the worldwide fame he would later earn as the author of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn -- when he took up the lecture circuit in the mid-1860s, hoping to supply himself with a steadier income than freelance writing afforded.

Twain's earliest experience before an audience frightened him considerably. He was so seized with stage fright, he later told audiences, that he glimpsed the face of death. "My nerves, and my whole physical economy, are shattered with wear and tear," he wrote his wife Livy (Olivia) about the tribulations of traveling from small town to small town with names such as You Bet and Red Dog.

But perseverance paid off. Soon, he was in demand as a lecturer throughout the United States -- and in Europe, too. One of his best-received and most widely quoted speeches was made in London on July 4, 1873, before an audience of Americans assembled to celebrate the national holiday.

The speech is vintage Twain. It began with what sounded at first like fulsome praise of his native country, "the land which had developed a Washington, a Franklin," but then came a pause, and Twain inserted the name of "William M. …

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