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The Time Johnny Cash Met Richard Nixon

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Richard Nixon was hoping for a light-hearted, impromptu concert at the White House, but the Man in Black delivered a full-frontal musical attack on the president's ideology and policies.

Johnny Cash was a man who spoke his mind, whether he was talking to a prisoner at San Quentin or the President of the United States.

In July 1972, Cash sat down with Richard Nixon in the White House’s Blue Room. The country music superstar had come to discuss prison reform, and the media was present, eager to report the results. Nixon thought he’d break the ice, and asked, “Johnny, would you be willing to play a few songs for us?” If he’d left it at that, things might have gone differently. But Nixon added, “I like Merle Haggard’s 'Okie From Muskogee' and Guy Drake’s 'Welfare Cadillac.'" Both songs were satirical expressions of right-wing disdain (though Nixon probably missed the satire) - the first for Vietnam protesters and hippies, the second for poor people who cheat the welfare system.

“I don’t know those songs,” Cash said. “But I got a few of my own I can play for you.”

With the leader of the western world held captive, Cash launched into “What Is Truth?” a song that championed the idea of youth and freedom, with a pointedly anti-war second verse. Nixon sat listening with a frozen smile.

Cash continued the assault with “The Man in Black,” a song that explained how his fashion preference represented his solidarity with the oppressed, the sick, the lonely, and the soldiers (“Each week we lose a hundred fine young men”).

Cash then capped off his mini-concert with “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” about the plight of Native Americans, in particular one of the soldiers who raised the flag at Iwo Jima. Hayes returned home to be decorated, but couldn’t deal with the guilt he felt over surviving the war when so many of his friends didn’t. He drank himself to death.

That must have been a long concert for the president, with reporters and photographers there to witness. Nixon had probably figured he was popular with Cash’s fans, so the two men would have a lot in common. But he obviously didn’t know the depth of Cash’s character and his empathy for the downtrodden. And Cash could’ve taken the easy route, and played hits like “I Walk The Line” or “A Boy Named Sue,” but he chose to confront Nixon with protest songs. Would any of today’s performing artists do something like that?

Earlier that day, Cash also testified before a Senate committee on prisons. He let them know that in the past, he had spent several days in city and county jails for minor offenses. “A first offender needs to know that somebody cares for him and that he is given a fair shake,” Cash said. “The purpose behind prison reform should be to have less crime. The prisoner has to be treated like a human being. If he isn’t when he gets out, he won’t act like one.”

This post originally appeared in 2012.

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8 Surprising Facts About the Presidential Yacht
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Yuri Gripas/AFP/Getty Images

If you consider a boat to be a suboptimal way of ferrying the President of the United States, you’re not alone. No sitting president has used one for official travel purposes since 1977, when the USS Sequoia was decommissioned. But for a good chunk of the 20th century, the POTUS was able to jump on a yacht and set sail for both recreational and government business, getting a change of scenery without having to hop on a plane. Take a look at a few things you might not have known about this unique—and extinct—political retreat.

1. THE SEQUOIA WASN’T THE FIRST PRESIDENTIAL YACHT.

The idea of toting presidents in a floating White House for social engagements dates back to 1893, when the USS Dolphin flew the presidential flag for Grover Cleveland and William McKinley. In 1905, Theodore Roosevelt anointed the USS Mayflower, a luxury steam yacht, that was occupied by three successive presidents until it was decommissioned in 1929. Two other ships were in service before the Sequoia was selected in 1933.

2. IT WAS ORIGINALLY A DECOY SHIP DURING PROHIBITION.

The Sequoia wasn’t custom-built for presidential purposes. Constructed in 1925, the 104-foot-long vessel was originally owned by a Texas oilman and purchased by the U.S. government in 1931. It was used as a decoy ship to intercede rum runners during Prohibition before being rehomed with the U.S. Navy. Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt enjoyed fishing off the ship—in Hoover’s case, so much so that he put a picture of it on the White House’s official 1932 Christmas card. Hoover soon declared it the official presidential yacht in 1933.

3. EACH PRESIDENT CUSTOMIZED IT.

The Sequoia underwent several minor facelifts as each new sitting president decided they wanted a custom yacht experience. Lyndon B. Johnson was so tall that he had to have the shower on board extended so he could bathe comfortably; John F. Kennedy had a king-sized bed installed. An elevator was added to make it wheelchair-accessible for Franklin Roosevelt; Johnson later ripped out the lift and used the space for a wet bar.

4. NIXON LOVED THE BOAT.

Of all the presidents to board the Sequoia, Richard Nixon did so with the greatest frequency and zeal. He reportedly stepped on the ship at least 88 times, sailing to Mount Vernon and insisting staff salute Washington’s tomb. Later, when Watergate began to consume most of his final days in office, he insisted an anti-bug electronic shield be installed in case the ship was being tapped for sound. Nixon also made the decision to resign while on board, mournfully playing “God Bless America” on the piano that Truman had installed.

5. JFK HAD HIS LAST BIRTHDAY PARTY THERE.

On what turned out to be his last birthday, John F. Kennedy devoted the night of May 29, 1963 to a celebration on the Sequoia. Just 24 guests were invited, and only three Secret Service members were on board—the rest populated security boats trailing behind.

6. ELVIS BOUGHT ONE.

For Franklin D. Roosevelt, the USS Potomac was his ship of choice: The 165-foot-long ship was big enough to accommodate more Secret Service staff and was in use from 1936 to 1945. After passing through other hands, Elvis Presley decided he wanted to make sure the ship was preserved and bought it at auction in 1964 for $55,000. The King immediately donated it to Saint Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, where it continued to change hands until being designated a National Historical Landmark in 1987.

7. JIMMY CARTER SOLD IT OFF.

By 1977, the Sequoia had been in service for over four decades, and the cost to maintain it was significant: $800,000 a year. Because Jimmy Carter had made campaign promises to cut extraneous expenses, he had little choice but to trim the fat by decommissioning the yacht. The Sequoia was sold off for $236,000. In 1999, a collector of presidential memorabilia bought it for nearly $2 million and began renting it out to visitors for $10,000.

8. IT BECAME FULL OF RACCOON POOP.

Once the Sequoia entered the private sector, its seaworthiness became a very costly pursuit. In 2016, a judge ruled that FE Partners, which restores historic ships, could have the vessel free of charge after it was declared to be rotting and infested with raccoons while idling in a Virginia shipyard: The animals reportedly pooped on presidential carpets. The group hopes to restore the Sequoia and have it back on the water sometime in the next few years.

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You Can Buy the Oldest Surviving Photo of a U.S. President
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Courtesy Sotheby's

The descendent of a 19th-century U.S. Congressman has discovered a previously unknown presidential portrait that is likely the oldest surviving photograph of a U.S. president, The New York Times reports.

Previously, two 1843 portraits of John Quincy Adams were thought to be the oldest photographs of a president still around. Currently hanging in the National Portrait Gallery, one of them was found on sale at an antique shop in 1970 for a mere 50 cents. Now, an even older photo of the sixth president has been uncovered, and it’ll cost you more than 50 cents to buy it.

Adams sat for dozens of photographs throughout his life, so it’s not entirely surprising that a few more surviving portraits would be uncovered. At the time this newly discovered half-plate daguerreotype was taken in March 1843, Adams had already served out his term as president and had returned to Congress as a U.S. Representative from Massachusetts. The photo was taken by Philip Haas, who in August of that same year would take other daguerreotypes that we previously thought were the oldest surviving photos. (Despite his apparent willingness to be photographed, Adams called them “all hideous.”)

John Quincy Adams sits in a portrait studio in 1843.
Courtesy Sotheby's

After having three daguerreotypes taken that day in March, Adams gave one of them to his friend and fellow Congressman Horace Everett, inscribing it with both their names. Everett’s great-great-grandson eventually found it in his family’s belongings and is now putting it up for sale through Sotheby’s.

It isn't the oldest picture of a U.S. president ever taken, though. The first-ever was actually a portrait of William Henry Harrison made in 1841, but unlike this one, the original has not survived. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art owns a copy of it, which was made in 1850.)

The head of the Sotheby’s department for photographs, Emily Bierman, told The New York Times that the newly discovered image is “without a doubt the most important historical photo portrait to be offered at auction in the last 20 years.” (She also noted that the former POTUS is wearing “cute socks” in it.)

The daguerreotype will be on sale as part of a photography auction at Sotheby’s in October and is expected to sell for an estimated $150,000 to $250,000. Start saving.

[h/t The New York Times]

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