Public Diplomacy officers are often called on to speak at openings and conferences, and every American diplomat drafts remarks for Ambassadors and other administration principals. These skills are always improved by reading and listening to speeches from the past.
Nearly eight decades after his death, memories of the American cowboy, movie star, and humorist Will Rogers (1875-1939) have faded. The genial Oklahoman was, however, a major figure in American culture in the early 1930s, and we must count him among our nation’s great communicators — in his unique way.
Ranching, roping, Texas Jack’s Wild West Circus, vaudeville, the Ziegfeld Follies, and Hollywood – during the Depression, the career of Will Rogers personified the American dream for many. He gained fame as a film star (50 silent movies and 21 with sound), newspaper columnist, and aviation advocate. As a goodwill ambassador, he traveled to Europe, Latin America, and Asia. His death in an air crash with Wiley Post in Alaska in 1935 occasioned a great outpouring of national grief.
Rogers’ folksy humor was remarkably clean and gentle, and he was a widely sought speaker. Many of his talks were pressed on discs.
Rogers was well known as a liberal (“I don’t belong to any organized political party – I’m a Democrat.”), but in 1931, the chairman of General Electric, Owen D. Young, asked Rogers to help promote a Hoover administration relief initiative. According to the American Presidency Project, “The address inaugurated a 6-week campaign to raise local relief funds. Cooperating in the drive were some 1,000 local committees or community chests plus the advertising media, the film industry, and an array of public speakers.”
Rogers was paired in a national broadcast with the President. His remarks on October 18, 1931, became known as his “Bacon and Beans and Limousines” speech, even though the three words appear nowhere in the text. The Oklahoman was filmed at the microphone, and his delivery can be viewed at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kyfvamwM4Yo.
The Rogers speech for the relief initiative has a different tone than the graver style of Foreign Service speeches, and PAOs do not chew gum while they speak, but still there are useful things to notice.
The speech flows so well that one doesn’t notice at first that it has a neat sequential structure. Some turns of phrase still echo in our current political rhetoric. And comparing the words of Rogers and Hoover in the same national broadcast –for the President’s remarks, see http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=22855 — it’s clear that the Oklahoman was setting up some of the President’s themes.
The text of the speech follows. The bracketed heads are mine – bold to show the organizational blocks of the speech, and ordinary font to add a few of my own notes.
Remarks of Will Rogers
President’s Organization on Unemployment Relief radio broadcast
October 18, 1931
[Icebreaker, using advertising as the foil]
Now don’t get scared and start turning off your radios. I’m not advertising or trying to sell you anything. If the mouthwash you’re using is not the right kind and it tastes sort of like sheep dip why you’ll just have to go right on using it. I can’t advise any other kind at all.
And if the cigarettes that you’re using, why if they don’t lower your Adam’s apple, why I don’t know of any that will. You’ll just have to cut out apples, I guess. That’s the only thing I know.
[Gesture to the host]
Now, Mr. Owen Young asked me to annoy on this program this evening. You all know Mr. Owen D. Young. You know, he’s the only sole surviving wealthy Democrat, so naturally when a wealthy Democrat asks me to do anything I have to do it, see?
Well, Mr. Young, he’s the head of the Young Plan, you know. He’s the originator of the Young Financial European Plan. [As a leading member of the American delegation at the Hague conferences of 1929 and 1930, Young helped reduce and reschedule the payment of Germany’s World War I reparations.]
He’s the head of Young Men’s Temperance Union, and originator of Young’s Markets, and Young Kippur. And was the first Democratic child born of white parents in Youngstown, Ohio.
He started the Young Plan in Europe. That was that every nation pay just according to what they could afford to pay, see? And, well, somebody else come along with an older plan than Young’s plan, and it was that nobody don’t pay anybody anything, and course that’s the oldest plan there is. [The Depression and a financial crisis made it impossible for Germany to make the reparations payments.] And that’s the one they’re working under now. That’s why we ain’t getting anything from Europe.
So when Mr. Young asked me to appear why I said, “Well, I’m kind of particular. Who is gonna be the other speaker? Who else is on the bill with me?”
And he said, “Well, how would Mr. Hoover do?”
Well, I slightly heard of him, you know, and I said, “Well, I’ll think it over.”
So I looked into Mr. Hoover’s record and inquired of everybody, and after I had kind of thrown out about two-thirds of what the Democrats said about him why I figured that I wouldn’t have much to lose by appearing with Mr. Hoover, so I’m here this evening appearing on the bill with Mr. Hoover. So now I expect you won’t hear any more of Amos and Andy it’ll just be Hoover and Rogers from now on.
[Clearing away the underbrush to focus on one problem]
Now we read in the papers every day, and they get us all excited over one or a dozen different problems that’s supposed to be before this country. There’s not really but one problem before the whole country at this time. It’s not the balancing of [Secretary of the Treasury] Mr. Mellon’s budget. That’s his worry. That ain’t ours. And it’s not the League of Nations that we read so much about. It’s not the silver question.
The only problem that confronts this country today is at least 7,000,000 people are out of work. That’s our only problem. There is no other one before us at all. It’s to see that every man that wants to is able to work, is allowed to find a place to go to work, and also to arrange some way of getting a more equal distribution of the wealth in country.
Now it’s Prohibition, we hear a lot about that. Well, that’s nothing to compare to your neighbor’s children that are hungry. It’s food, it ain’t drink that we’re worried about today. Here a few years ago we was so afraid that the poor people was liable to take a drink that now we’ve fixed it so they can’t even get something to eat.
[We can do it]
So here we are in a country with more wheat and more corn and more money in the bank, more cotton, more everything in the world—there’s not a product that you can name that we haven’t got more of it than any other country ever had on the face of the earth—and yet we’ve got people starving.
We’ll hold the distinction of being the only nation in the history of the world that ever went to the poor house in an automobile. The potter’s fields are lined with granaries full of grain. Now if there ain’t something cockeyed in an arrangement like that then this microphone here in front of me is — well, it’s a cuspidor, that’s all.
Now I think that they’ll arrange it — I think some of our big men will perhaps get some way of fixing a different distribution of things. If they don’t they are certainly not big men and won’t be with us long, that’s one thing.
[Some humorous leaven]
Now I say, and have always claimed, that things would pick up in ’32. Thirty-two, why ’32? Well, because ’32 is an election year, see, and the Republicans always see that everything looks good on election year, see? They give us three good years and one bad one—no, three bad ones and one good one. I like to got it wrong. That’s the Democrats does the other. They give us three bad years and one good one, but the good one always comes on the year that the voting is, see? Now if they was running this year why they would be all right. But they are one year late. Everything will pick up next year and be fine.
[Moral argument. President Hoover would soon make the same appeal a few moments later when he spoke.]
These people that you’re asked to aid, why they’re not asking for charity, they are naturally asking for a job, but if you can’t give ‘em a job why the next best thing you can do is see that they have food and the necessities of life.
You know, there’s not a one of us who has anything that these people that are without it now haven’t contributed to what we’ve got. I don’t suppose there’s the most unemployed or the hungriest man in America has contributed in one way to the wealth of every millionaire in America.
[President Obama may have been reaching for this same sentiment, but “you didn’t build that” struck the wrong note. It provides an example of why it’s good to read old speeches.]
It wasn’t the working class that brought this condition on at all. It was the big boys themselves who thought that this financial drunk we were going through was going to last forever. They over-merged and over-capitalized, and over-everything else. That’s the fix we’re in now.
[Perhaps Senator Dodd and Representative Frank were channeling Will Rogers]
Now I think that every town and every city will raise this money. In fact, they can’t afford not to. They’ve got the money because there’s as much money in the country as there ever was. Only fewer people have it, but it’s there. And I think the towns will all raise it because I’ve been on a good many charity affairs all over the country and I have yet to see a town or a city ever fail to raise the money when they knew the need was there, and they saw the necessity. Every one ‘em will come through.
Europe don’t like us and they think we’re arrogant, and bad manners, and have a million faults, but every one of ’em, well, they give us credit for being liberal.
Doggone it, people are liberal. Americans—I don’t know about America being fundamentally sound and all that after-dinner hooey, but I do know that America is fundamentally liberal.
[A gracious gesture to a much-criticized President, well expressing the Rogers persona – “I never met a man I didn’t like.”]
Now I want to thank Mr. [Walter Sherman] Gifford [1885-1966], the head of this unemployment, thank Mr. Young, and I certainly want to thank Mr. Hoover for the privilege of being allowed to appear on the same program with him because I know that this subject is very dear to Mr. Hoover’s heart and know that he’d rather see the problem of unemployment solved than he would to see all the other problems he has before him combined. And if every town and every city will get out and raise their quota, what they need for this winter, why it’ll make him a very happy man, and happiness hasn’t been a steady diet with our president. He’s had a very tough, uphill fight, and this will make him feel very good. He’s a very human man. I thank you. Good night.
This essay, which first appeared as a Public Diplomacy Council Commentary on October 18, 2014, is now republished.
Donald M. Bishop is the Bren Chair of Strategic Communications in the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. Mr. Bishop served as a Foreign Service Officer – first in the U.S. Information Agency and then in the Department of State – for 31 years.