Wil­lie at the White House

The Covington News - - Front page -

As he sang “Blue Eyes Cry­ing in the Rain” I had a thought, prob­a­bly an ou­tra­geous one, but at least worth a mo­ment of con­sid­er­a­tion.

Jimmy Carter didn’t make his own party Wed­nes­day night, that he threw to honor stock­car driv­ers. His wife an­nounced to the crowd that “only some­thing the mag­ni­tude of the sum­mit talks would have kept him away.”

He made a mis­take by not com­ing. And he made a mis­take by not bring­ing Egypt’s Sa­dat and Is­rael’s Be­gin with him.

Sit the two of them down to­gether in front of Wil­lie Nel­son, I thought. Bring the peo­ple with the bags over their heads in­side, too. Give them all a cold beer and let them lis­ten to Wil­lie Nel­son. Af­ter “Blue Eyes Cry­ing in the Rain,” who would still want to fight?

Wed­nes­day night was Jimmy Carter ful­fill­ing a prom­ise. When he was gov­er­nor of Ge­or­gia, he made it an an­nual prac­tice to host stock­car driv­ers and even sports­writers at the man­sion on West Paces Ferry.

You know about stock­car racing. Stock­car racing isn’t Watkins Glen or spiffy gen­tle­men in sleek Porsches and Fer­raris. It is Talledega and Day­tona and At­lanta In­ter­na­tional Race­way and beer and fried chicken and a punch in the nose be­cause you said a Chevro­let can whip a Dodge or, worse, you in­sulted the glo­ri­ous mem­ory of Fire­ball Roberts.

“Jimmy told us if he ever got to be pres­i­dent,” ex­plained driver David Pear­son, “we would share in some of the glory. Here we are.”

And there they were. Pear­son, Petty, Waldrip, Yar­bor­ough, and Bill France, the head kabolla of stock­car racing. And even some sports­writers and even Billy Carter, and es­pe­cially Wil­lie Nel­son who sang with Amy and Ros­alynn and Billy’s wife, Sy­bil.

The night was heavy with dou­bleknit and denim.

The Wash­ing­ton pa­pers the next day didn’t quite know what to make of the af­fair. They said it did prove we are un­der the reign of a pop­ulist pres­i­dent. They went into great de­tail con­cern­ing the Carters’ love for stock­car racing and ex­plained stock­car racing grew in the South from an ear­lier pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with run­ning moon­shine.

“I ain’t never run moon­shine,” Richard Petty told a re­porter, “but I don’t know about the rest of my fam­ily.”

I go back to those par­ties at the gov­er­nor’s man­sion. The first one was a flop be­cause Ros­alynn had charge of the food and en­ter­tain­ment. She of­fered an ex­otic menu that in­cluded fish­like things that still had their eyes. The en­ter­tain­ment was an op­er­atic trio.

I can still see A.J. Foyt shift­ing un­com­fort­ably from one cow­boy boot to an­other and Jabe Thomas driv­ing to the front of the man­sion in his me­chanic’s truck. I can still hear some­body say­ing, “This would make Cur­tis Turner roll over in his grave.” Ros­alynn Carter stepped onto the band­shell be­hind the White House Wed­nes­day night and apol­o­gized for all that. She had learned her les­son. The fare this evening was beer and wine and roast beef and ham and corn bread. The pro­gram an­nounced, “Selections by Wil­lie Nel­son.”

I could prob­a­bly dab­ble around in all this for some hid­den po­lit­i­cal mean­ing. But the heck with that.

What hap­pened Wed­nes­day night at the home of the pres­i­dent of the United States was a large group of mostly South­ern peo­ple got to­gether in the back­yard for a pic­nic and to lis­ten to one of their own sing his red ban­dana off. Andy Jack­son used to give the same kind of par­ties here, and he wound up on the $20 bill.

In the mid­dle of that singing, when peo­ple had squared off to clog on the lawn, a fel­low I know from Ge­or­gia came to my ta­ble and whis­pered in my ear:

“My great-grand­fa­ther was wounded at the Bat­tle of Sharps­burg. He was cap­tured at Get­tys­burg. He had to limp all the way home to Ge­or­gia. If he could see this tonight, he’d think we won af­ter all.”

Lewis Griz­zard

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