Willie at the White House
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.”