Trying to be more like Will Rogers

June 13, 2012 08:39 am

The largest picture in my Kansas hometown was that of Will Rogers. It was a huge portrait, maybe 12 feet high, hanging in the lobby of the Royal Theater.

Will Rogers was enormously popular. You could say he was well-liked. He seemed to poke fun at the well-to-do and particularly politicians, endearing himself to Depression-era America as few others did. But his poking was never with anything sharper than an elbow.

He was famous for saying that he had never met a man he didn’t like.

I have. Also a couple of women and half a dozen kids.

I honestly wish I were more like Rogers. The whole country loved him. No one loved him more than Oklahomans though. Lots of nice people are from Rogers’ home state of Oklahoma. How could you not like Patti Page or Woody Guthrie? Mickey Mantle or Jim Thorpe? Or Reba McEntire? What kind of a nincompoop misanthrope would it take to dislike Reba?

What do you suppose Rogers would have thought of Timothy McVeigh?

McVeigh, of course, wasn’t from Oklahoma, but his name will always be associated with it because of the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. If Rogers had met McVeigh, would he have had to amend his famous quote or find some salient quality in McVeigh that would keep him on his likeable list?

I can dislike people for a lot less than that. I have an irritable gene. I think I got it from my mother rather than my father. When I asked her once why she disliked some woman so intensely, she narrowed her eyes and started with, “Well, 20 years ago…”

The grievance was petty, but my mother held a grudge longer than anyone I knew.

People who can let things go are more popular, get better invitations, have more fun.

And sometimes get more votes.

I’ve been thinking about the “likability factor” in politics as this year’s races heat up. Personality and charm and all of the other things that go into what constitutes likability are very persuasive, but they have very little to do with depth of character.

In retrospect, one of my best teachers, and by that I mean one I actually learned something from, was my junior high geography teacher, Miss Fortescue. She scared some people speechless with her fierce bulldog scowl. She was a free-thinking Quaker who hated injustice, but she looked like Carry Nation and was just as volatile. I learned geography and still remember where Ceylon is. It’s not Miss Fortescue’s fault they renamed it Sri Lanka later.

My science teacher, on the other hand, was a handsome young wise-cracker the students either adored or envied or both. All I remember from his class though is how popular he was, nothing much about science.

The most successful politicians used to be the glad handers who could make the most rounds and remember the most names. We liked it when we’d meet politicians who remembered our names. We imagined they were our friends.

All it really meant was that that they’d learned Dale Carnegie’s rule No. 6 from “How to Win Friends and Influence People”: “Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”

It doesn’t mean that politician necessarily has your interest at heart or respects your values or will serve honorably.

It means he or she has attached a name to an image of your face, a carnival barker’s trick at best.

Nowadays, the glad handing is done mostly via the mass media, more through their own commercials than anything else, but it’s still the same principle: make people like you no matter what it takes. Sincerity can wait until after the election.

I wonder if Will Rogers would have liked Bernie Madoff. I’m pretty sure my mother and Miss Fortescue wouldn’t have.


Mike Shearer can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it