Johnny Cash: Talkin’ Memorial Day Weekend Blues
Author’s Note: On May 29, 2011, this expanded and revised version of the story, “The Johnny Cash Compassion Project,” was posted on Like The Dew.
Having won the White House in November ’68, Richard Nixon declared he would “bring us together.” The U.S. was ripped asunder with riots, assassinations and the war in Vietnam. Nixon’s administration, however, tore us further apart. Nine months into his presidency, with anti-war demonstrations becoming more strident, Nixon addressed the nation. He used the speech, which he wrote himself, to buy time for his “Vietnamization” program, but along the way, instead of uniting Americans, he provided his own spin on the division gripping the country. Nixon referred to those opposed to the U.S. role in Vietnam as “a vocal minority,” closing his speech with the assumption that “the great silent majority of Americans” would support his war policies. He assumed correctly, certainly enough to rally the nation and win a second term in office in ’72. Along the way, Nixon not only depended on the support of the “silent majority,” but also on White House Plumbers supervising black-bag jobs against those intensely averse to his administration.
To obscure his devious aims, the president would sometimes make a show of appealing to the common man. One way of doing so was making a friend of Johnny Cash. It certainly made for good photo opportunities. Perhaps that’s all Nixon wanted out of the friendship, for he truly failed to sense the spirit possessed by Cash. Had he learned just a little from Johnny Cash, the nation could have avoided a lot of misery.
This Terrible Imposition . . . Sending over 20,000 young Americans to their deaths in Vietnam wasn’t enough to keep the Nixon White House busy. They also maintained an “enemies list.” Enemies within the USA. People who paid their taxes. People who contributed to our quality of life. People dubious of Nixon’s promise that new leadership would end the war.
Many of the so-called enemies had made it clear they were not friends of the administration. Some had the temerity to write columns opposing the president’s policies. Some spoke out against the president in speeches and demonstrations. They were unaware of the consequences of exercising their first amendment rights. They might make the president’s list, whether they wanted to or not.
The existence of the Nixon administration’s enemies list was revealed by White House Counsel John Dean in 1973 before the Senate Watergate committee. It was more wacky news that made the work of political satirists so difficult. You can’t make up better stuff than that.
Some, like Paul Newman, celebrated making the list. Hunter S. Thompson lamented being left off. Considering the logic behind such a compilation was staggering. Even Joe Namath made the list. It must have been the Fu Manchu mustache. Or maybe Nixon lost a bundle on Super Bowl III. As Namath biographer Mark Kriegel asked, “Would an enemy of the Republic appear on The Brady Bunch as Namath did later that year?”
What John Dean filed as “Opponents List and Political Enemies Project” is old news, oft forgotten. But Nixon’s paranoia is a gift that keeps on giving. The Nixon Library, run by the National Archives, in 2010, released 280,000 pages of records that offer more disturbing, if somewhat amusing, evidence of what made Dick tick.
He not only attacked his opponents’ beliefs; he attacked the arts they patronized. Nixon referred to modern art as “these little uglies,” and sent a memo to his chief of staff ordering the administration to “turn away from the policy of forcing our embassies abroad or those who receive assistance from the United States at home to move in the direction of off-beat art, music and literature.”
That explains the unhappiness at embassies in France and Switzerland. Too much Coltrane on the stereo. Too many bookshelves lined with Kerouac.
But Nixon happily promoted his friendship with one great artist: Johnny Cash. To the president with his perceptions of a silent majority, Cash was a sure thing. No counterculture hooey with this guy. He was a big, friendly man who appeared to possess the values The White House promoted in one room as they were shredding the Constitution in the next.
Johnny Cash had a great following among those in Middle America, the symbolic territory where Nixon sought approval. Shortly after Nixon took office in ’69, Cash was at a career peak. His Folsom Prison and San Quentin albums topped the country charts. “A Boy Named Sue,” recorded live before tough men doing hard time, was a favorite on jukeboxes in the Deep South and other conservative regions.
In the April 30, 1970 Rolling Stone, legendary music critic Ralph J. Gleason offered a full assessment of Johnny Cash, one more encompassing than what most Middle Americans may have gathered, but the whole truth and nothing but.
Cash is pure white America, part Indian, part cowboy, part sharecropper/poor man, part poet, part visionary, painfully learning how to adjust to the new facts the environment and history are insisting on, adapting his belief in God and tradition and motherhood and the rest to the growing realization of the exploitation of the society and so the racism built into it.
I’ve Been Everywhere, Man …Cash was a Christian and a friend of the evangelist Billy Graham. Another famous friend of Graham’s was President Nixon. How perfect this seemed to the White House: political hay could be made in embracing Johnny Cash. All the while, they seemed to forget that Johnny Cash was genuine. He didn’t need a White House visit to feel accomplished, and he had no desire to play a role in the Nixon P.R. enterprises.
In the May ’88 Musician, Cash talked much about his life, including his struggles with drugs, his faith and career. He claimed his two best friends were Billy Graham and Waylon Jennings. Cash and those two cover a lot of ground. Such friendships indicate Nixon may have misunderstood the life Johnny Cash lived before he was invited to play The White House in ’70.
Among the friends of Johnny Cash were Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and others not likely to attend Republican fundraisers. Cash admired them for the same quality they saw in him: authenticity. It wasn’t only his following in the emerging youth culture that might annoy conservatives, there were also certain causes he was drawn to. For example, Cash had recorded Bitter Tears, an album lamenting the treatment of Native Americans. He also advocated prison reform.
Regardless of one’s politics, an invitation to perform at The White House is not taken lightly. Still Cash did not grant Nixon’s request beforehand that he play “Okie From Muskogee” and “Welfare Cadillac.” Cash declined, saying he didn’t know either of those songs. “Welfare Cadillac” was a big country hit by Guy Drake that year. Its message was considered demeaning to people in need of government assistance. Cash said he wasn’t making a political statement by rejecting those songs; he simply preferred to play songs he and his band knew.
The songs in The White House set included “What Is Truth” and “Man In Black.” Written by Cash, those songs questioned war and assailed materialism. They were not “silent majority” favorites.
In ’72 Cash returned to The White House to speak with the president about prison reform. In a year or so, Nixon, dealing with the crimes of Watergate, may have given serious thought to conditions in the federal pens. However, he received a pardon from President Ford after resigning from office in August ’74.
A few months later, out of the public eye in San Clemente, California, Nixon received a call from Jamaica. It was Billy Graham and then Johnny Cash to wish the Nixons a Merry Christmas. The call was Graham’s idea. Cash tried to beg off, saying, “He don’t want to hear from me.” Graham handed Cash the phone anyway, and he spoke with the Nixons for a few minutes.
In his interview with Bill Flannagan of Musician, Cash admitted to being “a little nervous in the conversation.” But he was happy for Graham, who for awhile felt cast aside by the former president. Such an act of compassion explains a lot about Johnny Cash. He well understood forgiveness, from both sides. That’s something for people compiling enemies lists to consider.
Leave Your Guns At Home . . . Memorial Day 2011. The United States is involved in three wars. All three are in need of a snappy exit plan. Declaring victory and bringing the troops home seems far preferable to wasting more lives and treasure in these “wars of choice.” Imagine what could be done if the young men and women in uniform, so devoted to their country, could provide service in America where great needs have gone neglected, especially as the nation drowns in red ink. Serving one’s country involves more than carrying weapons in foreign lands.
Like the young Americans in military service, Johnny Cash loved America. He was guided by a sense of patriotism which stirred great empathy for his countrymen serving in Vietnam, despite his own thoughts regarding the war. Cash was supportive of the U.S. troops, those sent into battle in the days of conscription. In ’69, he and his wife, June Carter Cash went to Vietnam to sing for the soldiers. The experience left a great impact on him, quite evident in his song, “Singing in Vietnam Talkin’ Blues.”
So we went to the hospital ward by day
And every night we was singin’ away
Then the shells and the bombs was goin’ again
And the helicopters brought in the wounded men
Night after night, day after day, comin’ and a goin’
Cash later said, “As far as the war in Vietnam is concerned, that war just made me sick…… Maybe Vietnam has taught us a hard lesson to not be involved in foreign wars. Maybe that’s the lesson we’ve learned. I hope we have.”
A Lesson For The Learning . . . Less than six months before his passing, Johnny Cash realized the lesson of Vietnam had not been learned. His daughter, Rosanne Cash, told The Progressive that just before the U.S. invaded Iraq, Johnny Cash was put in a medically induced coma. Before going to sleep, Rosanne said his thoughts were on the impending war. When he awoke, Rosanne said, “I was sitting by his side. He looked at me and reached over to pull the television over to him. He was looking at me like, ‘Did it happen?’ I said, ‘Dad, it happened.’ He went ‘No! No!’ Can you imagine? This is the first thing he thought of when he woke up from a week-long coma.”
Yes, Johnny Cash was a true patriot.