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Fact check: Did Will Rogers say the government needs to live ‘as cheap as the people’?

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The claim: Will Rogers said a man ‘he can’t make a living for (his family) AND his government, too, the way this government is living.’

A Facebook post made in 2013, shared 19,000 times since and recently viral, attributes a quote to the late humorist and political commentator Will Rogers: “There is not a man in the country that can’t make a living for himself and family. But he can’t make a living for them AND his government too, the way this government is living. What the government has got to do, is live as cheap as the people.” 

Another misattribution: Fact check: Orwell didn’t write people who ‘elect corrupt politcians’ are ‘accomplices’

Is the quote authentic?

The quote in the posting appears in a reproduction of a card attributed to the Will Rogers Commission and “edited by Bryan Sterling.”

Sterling, a Rogers expert who wrote books and a play about Rogers, died in 2008, and the commission in 2016 was merged with the Oklahoma Historical Society, which supports the Will Rogers Museum & Birthplace Ranch. 

Jennifer Holt, curator of collections there, reports that the quote is authentic, although pulled from a larger piece the famed Oklahoman sent to the New York Times in 1932.

Will Rogers sent short columns to more than 500 newspapers daily.

Rogers sent his short columns on daily life, current events and politics via telegram to roughly 500 papers nationwide. The one in question is included in “Will Rogers’ Daily Telegrams, Volume 3: The Hoover Years 1931-33,” dated Dec. 30, 1932:

“Technocracy,’ is it a new mouth wash or corn plaster or has the scientists just hired a press agent? It says you only work four hours a day, and there will be no politicians. That last is the best selling clause it has. There is not a man in the country that can’t make a living for himself and family. But, he can’t make a living for them and his government, too, the way this government is living. What the government has got to do is live as cheap as the people. Then you don’t need ‘technocracy.'”

Has editing the quote changed its meaning?

Steven Gragert, the Will Rogers museum’s former director, said Rogers often wrote about national politics and poked at the size of government. 

Rogers in his piece was taking a jab at “technocracy,” a short-lived movement embraced by a small group of engineers and scientists who believed societal ills could be addressed by replacing the “price and profit system with a scientifically or technically managed economy and society,” David Hamilton, a University of Kentucky associate professor of history, wrote in an email.

The movement took several forms and gained some traction during the Great Depression, which was gripping the nation when Rogers was writing, Hamilton wrote. While then-President Herbert Hoover was loosely linked to the movement because of his engineering background, Hamilton wrote that Hoover “would have abhorred the extremist nature” of the movement.

Though the Dec. 20, 1932, column marked the first time Rogers mentioned technocracy, he would write and talk about it again. A couple of days later, he questioned whether technocracy is a “disease or a theory. It may go out as fast as Eskimo pies or miniature golf courses. But people right now are in a mood to grab at anything.”

Ironically, Gragert said, Rogers went on to support Hoover’s successor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who introduced the New Deal, a vast expansion of the federal government that launched massive public projects to provide employment and help pull the U.S. out of the Great Depression. What viewpoint Rogers would have taken about big government in the long run will remain forever unknown — he died in a 1935 plane crash.

Humorist Will Rogers telegrammed a column to daily to about 500 newspapers.

Our ruling: Missing context 

A post including a Will Rogers quote is MISSING CONTEXT. The Facebook post loses references to technocracy, and the Great Depression, and emphasizes points that Rogers did not. While the quote retains his philosophical view on limiting the size of government, this quote relates to a topic that isn’t mentioned. 

Our fact-check sources

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Donnelle Eller covers agriculture, the environment and energy for the Des Moines Register. Reach her at [email protected] or 515-284-8457.

2021-03-17T19:36:41Z

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