Legendary country music star Johnny Cash visited Richard Nixon’s White House in April 1970. His appearance there has been the subject of much myth and intrigue. Did the songs he played support or insult President Nixon? In the second of a two part series on celebrity visits to the Nixon White House, Christopher Benedict explains the truth behind the meeting – as well as the enduring legacy of both Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley.
You can read the first article in this series on Elvis Presley here.
Part Two: Hello, I’m Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash performed onstage at a countless number of revered venues over the course of his half-century long recording career, some more unorthodox than others. He played for fans at the Grand Ole Opry and Madison Square Garden, inmates of Folsom and San Quentin Prison, soldiers in Vietnam, and members of the Sioux Indian tribe on their reservation at Wounded Knee.
Eight months prior to the impromptu and bewildering war-on-drugs summit between President Nixon and Elvis Presley, the Man in Black accepted an invitation to put on a concert at the White House’s East Room on April 17, 1970. The original introduction was made through Reverend Billy Graham, the evangelical Christian fundamentalist and mutual friend of Cash and Nixon. A staffer from the East Wing’s social office forwarded to Johnny Cash’s representatives, on behalf of the President, a request to play three specific songs during his set. “A Boy Named Sue”, said to be Nixon’s personal favorite, as well as Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee” and “Welfare Cadillac” by Guy Drake.
It is here that the tale of Cash Meets Nixon takes a hard left turn into the intangible realm of wishful thinking and urban legend.
But which songs did he play?
To begin to pick through the twisted bits of fact and fiction that clear a path to the truth and remake reality, we must first turn the pages of the calendar, and forward two years from where we currently are. On July 26, 1972, Johnny Cash appeared before a Senate subcommittee on the Federal Prison Reorganization Act to advocate for more suitable conditions for, and humane treatment of, those incarcerated throughout the nation’s penitentiaries. No doubt he had in mind during his testimony the faces and stories of the convicts he had had a chance to interact with before and after his live shows at San Quentin and Folsom prisons. Afterwards, Cash revisited the Oval Office where he met with Richard Nixon to further drive home his passion for prison reform in a personal appeal to the man who would be the ultimate decision-maker on the matter.
The story goes, as it has been misappropriated by certain left-leaning and well-meaning but misguided liberals, that it is now when Nixon makes a spontaneous face to face plea for Johnny to play the three aforementioned songs for his private amusement. Because “Welfare Cadillac” paints those living in poverty in disparagingly broad brush strokes as scheming, grumbling opportunists living high off of handouts from a government they detest, and “Okie From Muskogee” speaks from a clearly conservative point of view in mocking the nation’s counterculture and Vietnam War protestors (which would have won favor with Elvis), Cash indignantly refused. Instead, he reached for his acoustic guitar and unleashed a defiant musical repudiation of Nixon’s far-right agenda consisting of “What Is Truth?”, “Man In Black”, and “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”, an anthem from his Bitter Tears album shining a light on the dark misdeeds done to Native Americans, in this specific case the heroic World War II Marine who was one of the six Iwo Jima flag raisers and died at the age of 32 on his Arizona Pima reservation, losing his post-war struggles with poverty, alcohol, survivor’s guilt, and unwanted fame.
So what songs did Cash play?
Which would have been great. Had it happened. The facts, as they sometimes tend to do, have become muddled and juxtaposed into a sort of speculative jigsaw puzzle with universally corresponding pieces that can be conveniently arranged into a pictorial (or political, as it may be) rendition of your own choosing.
Johnny Cash did, for the most part, rebuff Nixon’s playlist in a manner that was disagreeable enough to earn the attention of the press and President alike back in 1970, where we return for the duration. Nixon, in his humorously understated onstage introduction of Cash, admitted to being no expert at Cash’s music. “I found that out when I began to tell him what to sing,” joked the President, playing off a tense situation for laughs. Whether his initial irritation had to do with the subject matter of the requested tunes or simply the fact that he did not like being told what to do or what songs to play and when, the actual reason for his not doing “Welfare Cadillac” or “Okie From Muskogee” seems to be that, to allow Cash himself to set the record straight, “the request had come in too late. If it hadn’t,” he continues, “then the issue might have become the messages, but fortunately I didn’t have to deal with that.”
He did, however, start his set on a conciliatory note with “A Boy Named Sue”, unfortunately eschewing his customary greeting “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash” and even going so far as to self-censor the line where Sue’s father gets to tell his side of the story, by screeching unintelligibly over the word “sonofabitch”. He also altered the list of names which Sue vows to give his own son by concluding, “I’ll name him…John Carter Cash” in a loving tribute to his six week-old infant. Backed up at alternating points by June Carter and her family band, the Statler Brothers, and Carl Perkins, Johnny and the Tennessee Three blasted their way through thirteen more songs before ending on a medley of “Folsom Prison Blues”, “I Walk the Line”, and “Ring of Fire”, followed by a full-cast finale of the traditional spiritual “Suppertime”. Nixon was seen squirming in his seat during the anti-war “What Is Truth?”, probably most noticeably during the last verse which goes, “the ones that you’re calling wild/are gonna be the leaders in a little while/this old world’s waking to a newborn day/and I solemnly swear that it’ll be their way.” Ouch. That had to hurt the leader of the free world who represented his so-called ‘silent majority’ of war supporters and was at that very time attempting to suppress mainstream news reportage of the My Lai massacre while accelerating the carpet bombings of Laos and Cambodia.
Politics on the tour?
Absent from the set list, however, was “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” which is a shame, not only for the rebellious element its inclusion would have satisfied in leftists and peaceniks then and now, but for the serendipitous coincidence that Apollo 13 had reentered Earth’s atmosphere and splashed down safely in the South Pacific Ocean that very morning. There, the craft and its grateful crew were recovered by and taken aboard the USS Iwo Jima.
Johnny fondly recalls the two-hour post-concert White House tour he and June were given personally by the President and First Lady Pat in his memoirs, describing the normally socially uneasy Nixon as “kind and charming”, adding that “he seemed to be honestly enjoying himself.” “The President even had me lie down and stretch out on the Lincoln bed,” Cash wrote, “and didn’t charge me, either.”
Adding to the dark cloud hanging over the preliminaries to the event was a White House memorandum issued to H. R. Haldeman by Nixon adviser Murray Choitner which worried over the fact that Cash might wield his influence with voters in promoting former country music star Tex Ritter in the upcoming Tennessee GOP Senatorial primaries over the administration’s stated favorite, Congressman Bill Brock. Choitner suggests to Haldeman that “it will be most helpful if privately the President can neutralize Johnny Cash so that he does not campaign for Ritter.” But this storm too passed. For, no matter the nature of whatever conversation did take place behind closed Lincoln bedroom doors regarding Cash’s civic duties, Ritter (who attended Cash’s concert that night) lost by an overwhelming margin to Brock, who went on to unseat the incumbent, Al Gore Sr.
Furthermore, if Ritter was apprised of the intended chicanery, it goes without saying that he bore no grudge. In 1973, he would present to an increasingly unpredictable and unpopular Nixon one of only two copies (the other going directly into the collection of the Country Music Association Hall of Fame) of an album titled Thank You Mr. President, which spliced together contemporary country hits with excerpts from Nixon’s speeches, narrated by Tex himself.
Johnny Cash, who once said that “I thank God for all the freedoms we’ve got in this country…even the rights to burn the flag…we also got the right to bear arms, and if you burn my flag, I’ll shoot you”, was a complex and sometimes contradictory individual. The fact that he remained consistent in his noncompliance with being branded by an opportune label or fitting comfortably within the margins of a clearly defined interpretation makes his insubordinate thought process, and the thousands of songs it manifested, all the more intriguing and enduring.
Just ask country performer John Rich who blundered during a 2008 Florida rally for Republican Presidential hopeful John McCain by claiming that “Somebody’s got to walk the line in the country. And I’m sure Johnny Cash would have been a John McCain supporter.” Johnny’s daughter Roseanne took exception to this assertion by issuing a rebuttal saying, “It is appalling to me that people still want to invoke my father’s name, five years after his death, to ascribe beliefs, ideals, values, and loyalties to him that cannot possibly be determined, and try to further their own agendas by doing so.”
Speaker of the House John Boehner likewise felt the wrath of the offspring of the Man in Black during the 2010 mid-term elections by reminiscing about the glory days of the Reagan administration (think here of Ronnie’s hilarious misuse of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” as a theme song during his own 1984 re-election bid). “We had Bob Hope. We had Johnny Cash,” Boehner was fond of repeating during stump speeches. “Think about where we are today. We have got President Obama. But we have no hope and we have no cash.”
Roseanne’s retort this time was more terse and to the point. She tweeted “John Boehner: Stop using my dad’s name as a punch line, you asshat.”
Cash and Elvis
Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley are both unique in a myriad of ways. That they were many things to many people is not one of them. Among the various shapes into which they shifted, or have been twisted, were walk-on roles in the theatre of the absurd that the Richard Nixon presidency would be. The administration’s disgraceful last act featured a cast of characters such as John Mitchell, Howard Hunt, Charles Colson and their fellow CREEPs (Committee to Re-Elect the President), Daniel Ellsberg whose dissemination of the Pentagon Papers was a leak that G. Gordon Liddy and his “plumbers” could not stop, and Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein reporting for Katharine Graham’s Washington Post on “deep background” tips from the shadowy Deep Throat (revealed in 2005 to be former FBI Associate Director Mark Felt), championed by Executive Editor Ben Bradlee.
While deputizing Elvis in the oval office, Nixon stressed to him the importance of the King’s capacity for using his talent and public profile to “reach young people” and “retain his credibility”. Ironically, it was Tricky Dick’s inability to accomplish either of these objectives that would facilitate his own demise.
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And remember, part one in this series on the day that Nixon and Elvis met is here.
- Man in Black by Johnny Cash (1975 Zondervan)
- Cash: The Autobiography by Johnny Cash with Patrick Carr (2003 Harper One)
- Johnny Cash Bootleg Volume 3: Live Around the World (2011 Sony Legacy)
- Johnny Cash & Richard Nixon by Les Marcott (Scene4 Magazine, January 2014)
- 17 April 1970: RN Welcomes The Man in Black to the White House (Richard Nixon Presidential Library archives)
- White House Memorandum from Murray Choitner to H. R. Haldeman (April 2, 1970)
- The Bitter Tears of Johnny Cash by Antonino D’Ambrosio (Salon.com, November 8, 2009)
- The Republicans Play Dirty by Caspar Llewellyn Smith (The Guardian, September 13, 2008)
- My Cowboy Suffers No Longer by Sherry Mowery (SodaHead, November 2, 2010)