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The Time Johnny Cash Met Richard Nixon

Bettmann/CORBIS
Bettmann/CORBIS

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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Big Questions
Where Should You Place the Apostrophe in President's Day?
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iStock

Happy Presidents’ Day! Or is it President’s Day? Or Presidents Day? What you call the national holiday depends on where you are, who you’re honoring, and how you think we’re celebrating.

Saying "President’s Day" infers that the day belongs to a singular president, such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, whose birthdays are the basis for the holiday. On the other hand, referring to it as "Presidents’ Day" means that the day belongs to all of the presidents—that it’s their day collectively. Finally, calling the day "Presidents Day"—plural with no apostrophe—would indicate that we’re honoring all POTUSes past and present (yes, even Andrew Johnson), but that no one president actually owns the day.

You would think that in the nearly 140 years since "Washington’s Birthday" was declared a holiday in 1879, someone would have officially declared a way to spell the day. But in fact, even the White House itself hasn’t chosen a single variation for its style guide. They spelled it “President’s Day” here and “Presidents’ Day” here.


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Maybe that indecision comes from the fact that Presidents Day isn’t even a federal holiday. The federal holiday is technically still called “Washington’s Birthday,” and states can choose to call it whatever they want. Some states, like Iowa, don’t officially acknowledge the day at all. And the location of the punctuation mark is a moot point when individual states choose to call it something else entirely, like “George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day” in Arkansas, or “Birthdays of George Washington/Thomas Jefferson” in Alabama. (Alabama loves to split birthday celebrations, by the way; the third Monday in January celebrates both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert E. Lee.)

You can look to official grammar sources to declare the right way, but even they don’t agree. The AP Stylebook prefers “Presidents Day,” while Chicago Style uses “Presidents’ Day.”

The bottom line: There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Go with what feels right. And even then, if you’re in one of those states that has chosen to spell it “President’s Day”—Washington, for example—and you use one of the grammar book stylings instead, you’re still technically wrong.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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President John Tyler's Grandsons Are Still Alive
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Getty Images

Here's the most amazing thing you'll ever read about our 10th president:

John Tyler was born in 1790. He took office in 1841, after William Henry Harrison died. And he has two living grandchildren.

Not great-great-great-grandchildren. Their dad was Tyler’s son.

How is this possible?

The Tyler men have a habit of having kids very late in life. Lyon Gardiner Tyler, one of President Tyler’s 15 kids, was born in 1853. He fathered Lyon Gardiner Tyler Jr. in 1924, and Harrison Ruffin Tyler in 1928.

We placed a somewhat awkward call to the Charles City County History Center in Virginia to check in on the Tylers.

After we shared this fact on Twitter in 2012, Dan Amira interviewed Harrison Tyler for New York Magazine. Lyon Tyler spoke to the Daughters of the American Revolution a while back. They were profiled by The Times of London. And Snopes is also in on the fact.

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