THE late American humorist Will Rogers was noted for saying he never met a man he didn't like. Political commentator Molly Ivins is noted for writings that suggest she has never met a public official she hasn't disliked.
Will Rogers the lovable populist and Molly Ivins the acerbic wit seem an unlikely match. Yet there Ms. Ivins was in the Oct. 17 issue of The New York Times Book Review, raving about both Rogers and a new biography of him by Ben Yagoda. A sampling from her write-up:
"Those of us who write political humor will want to study Will Rogers's approach to the players in public life. He spoke to the American people about Calvin Coolidge, Al Smith and Franklin D. Roosevelt as though they were members of the family, and he assumed that everyone would want to know what Cousins Cal, Al and Franklin had been up to lately. Rogers came from a family where politics was the topic of dinner-table conversation, and he took for granted that all Americans regarded politics and all its insanity as Our Deal.
"Rogers's success was, happily for American myth, based on hard work," Ms. Ivins continued. "And for every [public appearance] in every town, he studied the local papers so he could throw in material on the mayor, the local banker, the latest local lunacy. And none of this ever left him feeling frantic or overextended -- he thought he was lucky to get the work, enjoyed it and never hesitated to ask top dollar.
"His finest hour came during the Depression. Rogers had long condemned the speculative fever of the 20s, and felt some satisfaction when his prophecies of no-good-to-come-of-it finally came true. But the sight of seven million unemployed Americans soon cured that, and his loyalty, energy and caring was for them. In 1932, he endorsed no presidential candidate but, as Mr. Yagoda says, 'There wasn't a soul in the country who thought he preferred Hoover.' The letter he wrote Roosevelt on election night is a most extraordinary document: we'd be a better and happier nation today if every president elected since had also studied it. Rogers advised Roosevelt to take care of his health, not worry too much, smile and enjoy himself.
" . . . Will Rogers died in a plane crash in 1935 in Alaska with Wiley Post before the world really took a turn for the mean -- before the Nuremberg laws, Pearl Harbor and the atomic bomb. Ben Yagoda, who has studied his subject well, believes Will Rogers's gentle humor could have risen to all that and more. If so, our loss is still greater than we will ever know."