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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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Inside the Quest to Save 42 Giant Presidential Statues
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Gary Knapp // Getty Images

In 2004, Presidents Park opened in Williamsburg, Virginia. It was a huge open-air museum containing 42 two-story-high busts of the presidents to date at the time. Visitors could perambulate among the presidents, reading plaques about them. (Note: There are only 42 busts in total because of Grover Cleveland's two nonconsecutive terms.)

In 2013, local builder Howard Hankins was hired to remove and destroy the busts, after the attraction itself went bust. Hankins had another idea. He carefully transported all the busts to his family farm. This cleared the way for an Enterprise Rent-a-Car facility now located on the former grounds of Presidents Park. It also left him with 43 giant statues, many of them slightly damaged, to deal with.

Over the ensuing years, Hankins has walked among the busts, weeding the grounds and struggling to figure out what to do with these "giants of men." He loosely envisions a similar attraction, this time called The Presidential Experience. Ideally it would have a better location to attract tourists. But Hankins lacks the funding to make it a reality. Since the original haul, he has managed to secure a tiny template for an Obama bust, but couldn't afford to purchase the full-size version. No word yet on a Trump bust.

In the short film All the Presidents' Heads directed by Adam Roffman, we meet Hankins, see the busts, and learn about the possible second coming of a presidential roadside attraction. Enjoy:

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9 Fascinating Facts About John Quincy Adams

Today marks the 250th birthday of John Quincy Adams, sixth President of the United States (and son of our second POTUS, John Adams). Born on July 11, 1767 in a part of Braintree, Massachusetts that is now known as Quincy, the younger Adams was a pretty interesting guy. From his penchant for skinny-dipping to his beloved pet alligator, here are some things you might not have known about the skilled statesman.

1. HE WAS ELECTED PRESIDENT DESPITE LOSING BOTH THE POPULAR AND ELECTORAL VOTES.

The election of 1824, which saw John Quincy Adams face off against Andrew Jackson, is the only presidential election that had to be decided by the U.S. House of Representatives, as neither candidate won the majority of electoral votes. Despite losing both the popular and electoral vote, Adams was named president by the House.

2. HE LOVED MORNING CARDIO.

When it comes to personal fitness, early birds have an edge. Studies have shown that morning workouts can curb your appetite, prevent weight gain, and even help you get a good night’s sleep later on. Nobody understood the virtues of morning exercise better than Adams. As America’s foreign minister to Russia, Adams would wake up at five, have a cold bath, and read a few chapters from his German-language Bible. Then came a six-mile walk, followed by breakfast. 

3. HE WAS AN AVID SKINNY-DIPPER.

As president, Adams got his exercise by taking a daily dip in the Potomac … naked. Every morning at 5:00 a.m., he would walk to the river, strip down, and go for a swim. Sadly, the most famous swimming anecdote likely never happened. The story is that when Adams refused an interview with reporter Anne Royall, she hiked down to the river while he was swimming, gathered his clothes, and sat on them until he agreed to talk. But modern historians tend to agree that this story was a later invention. That’s not to say, however, that Adams never talked about Royall. In his diaries he wrote “[Royall] continues to make herself noxious to many persons; treating all with a familiarity which often passes for impudence, insulting those who treat her with incivility, and then lampooning them in her books.”

4. HE ENJOYED A GOOD GAME OF POOL.

Adams installed a billiards table in the White House shortly after becoming president. The new addition quickly became a subject of controversy when Adams accidentally presented the government with the $61 tab (in reality he had paid for it himself). Nonetheless, political enemies charged that the pool table symbolized Adams’s aristocratic taste and promoted gambling.

5. HE WAS AN AMAZING ORATOR, BUT TERRIBLE AT SMALL TALK.

Although Adams was nicknamed “Old Man Eloquent” for his unparalleled public speaking ability, he was terrible at small talk. Aware of his own social awkwardness, Adams once wrote in his diary, “I went out this evening in search of conversation, an art of which I never had an adequate idea. Long as I have lived in the world, I never have thought of conversation as a school in which something was to be learned. I never knew how to make, to control, or to change it.”

6. HE KEPT A PET ALLIGATOR IN A BATHTUB AT THE WHITE HOUSE.

Adams had a pet alligator, which was gifted to him by the Marquis de Lafayette. He kept it in a tub in the East Room of the White House for a few months, supposedly claiming that he enjoyed watching “the spectacle of guests fleeing from the room in terror.”

7. WHEN IT CAME TO POLITICS, HE PLAYED DIRTY.

The presidential election of 1828—when incumbent John Quincy Adams got crushed by longtime rival Andrew Jackson—is famous for the mudslinging tactics employed by both sides. Adams’s side said Jackson was too dumb to be president, claiming that he spelled Europe “Urope.” They also hurled insults at Jackson’s wife, calling her a “dirty black wench” for getting together with Jackson before divorcing her first husband. Jackson’s side retorted by calling Adams a pimp, claiming that he had once procured an American girl for sexual services for the czar while serving as an ambassador to Russia.

8. HE’S RESPONSIBLE FOR ACQUIRING FLORIDA.

Next time you find yourself soaking up some rays in the Sunshine State, take a moment to thank Adams. As Secretary of State, Adams negotiated the Adams-Onís Treaty, which allowed the U.S. to acquire Florida and set a new boundary between the U.S. and New Spain. That’s right: Walt Disney World might not have been built if it weren’t for the sixth president.

9. HE KIND OF HATED BEING PRESIDENT. 

Adams once reportedly stated, “The four most miserable years of my life were my four years in the presidency.” But even if he hated being commander-in-chief, Adams couldn’t bear to be out of the political loop for too long. After finishing his term as president, Adams served 17 more years in the House of Representatives, where he campaigned against further extension of slavery. In fact, he died shortly after suffering a stroke on the House floor.

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