“I thank God for all the freedoms we’ve got in this country. I cherish them,” Johnny Cash’s voice bellowed over a cheering concert crowd.
“Even the rights to burn the flag, you know. I’m proud of those rights,” Cash continued. The cheers quickly turned to boos.
“But I’ll tell you what… shhhh…” Cash shushed his fans. “We’ve also got the right to bear arms and if you burn my flag, I’ll shoot ya!” The cheers returned, louder than before.
This is the opening monologue in the excellent Netflix offering Tricky Dick and the Man in Black which explores what went down when Cash performed at Richard Nixon’s White House, along with his wife, June Carter Cash, in the spring of 1970. Cash’s crowd banter deftly captures from the get-go what the documentary is really about: the late 1960s tension between the stiffened cultural conservatism of the time and the rising antiwar counterculture, both reactions to the ongoing tragedy in Vietnam.
It was a confusing time. Did loving one’s country mean trusting its leaders, or challenging them? Is patriotism measured by deference to government, or defiance? Should a God-fearing American be more troubled by young radicals attacking their most cherished institutions—like the presidency—or by young men coming home in coffins in droves?
In the Nixon era, Cash straddled that divide, representing both sides. His conservative upbringing naturally placed him in one camp, but his unshakeable patriotism and Christian conscience would compel him to also champion the other.
Similarly, over two decades later, Nixon loyalist Pat Buchanan would become one of the most high-profile advocates of populist conservatism, and perhaps more importantly, the face of American antiwar conservatism.
Interestingly enough, in 1970, Buchanan would play a role in Cash’s White House story.
“Nixon wanted to identify with middle America and Johnny Cash was as middle America as you can get,” Buchanan says early in the documentary. “Johnny Cash had been one of my favorite since the mid-1950s… and so I started pushing and others did—let’s bring Johnny Cash to the White House.”
When Nixon gave his “Silent Majority” speech in November 1969, a response to increasing war protests, Cash lent his support to the president on his popular primetime television show. “My family and I here stand behind the president of the United States and his quest for a just and lasting peace,” Cash said.
That’s when Cash got a call from the White House. Nixon invited Johnny and his wife June to perform. They accepted.
The president also wrote a letter. “Dear Mr. Cash, Pat (Patricia Nixon) and I were so appreciative of what you said about us… we want to find an honorable end to the war…”
Buchanan explained the pro-Cash pitch to the president, “Nixon liked classical music, but we persuaded him that this would be a great evening. Also, culturally and socially, Johnny Cash represented Nashville. He represented country and western.”
“This is culturally ‘us,’” Buchanan insisted.
Obviously the president bought it, and it was, of course, true. Cash was Middle America.
But he also had one boot in the protest camp.
The Johnny Cash Show debuted nationally in June 1969. His popular program featured not only country performers, but also outspoken peace activists like Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, and Pete Seeger. Cash said in a segment shot backstage, “People that I’m contracted with said that, ‘How dare you, supposedly such a good American, have a communist like Pete Seeger on your TV show?’”
“The Pete Seeger I know,” Cash continued, “the Pete Seeger that June and I have come to love, is one of the best Americans and patriots I’ve ever known.”
Sitting directly across from Cash was Pete Seeger. He was beaming.
“My father always supported people within the armed forces,” says Cash’s son, John Carter Cash. “Of course, my father himself served in the Air Force during the Korean conflict.”
“He would set aside any political notion or any consideration of if one certain battle was right or wrong and support the men and young women that were fighting and giving their lives for us,” the younger Cash says.
Johnny Cash traveled to Vietnam to perform for the troops in December 1969, a month after accepting the White House invitation. In the tent where he and his wife June slept, they could hear the shells exploding. In the film, according to veteran antiwar activist Bill Zimmerman, the legendary country music couple listened, “to the sounds of war. Of people dying. Of watching the carnage. It made a very serious impression on him.”
Cash’s pastor, Jimmie Snow, featured prominently in the documentary, was abroad with his father in December 1969 and was surprised to see Johnny and June in Saigon.
“John, what are you doing in Vietnam?” Snow asked. “I’m in a search mode right now,” Snow said Cash said to him. “I’m troubled by what’s happening over here.”
“You know Jimmie. I was raised in a Baptist church in Arkansas. I know what’s right,” Cash continued according to Snow. Snow recalled Cash essentially saying, “What troubled me is it had taken our soldiers down. It had pulled their morale, their spirit down. Because of what they heard back home. Because of the way our country was so divided. Some of them had reached a point where… ‘What are we doing this for? Why are we over here?’”
“They were looking for,” Snow recounts, tears welling up, “a little bit of hope. We prayed about that.”
When Johnny Cash performed in the East Room of the White House that spring to a packed house of members of Congress and administration officials, Nixon had requested he perform two songs: Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” and the racially charged Guy Drake hit, “Welfare Cadillac.”
The latter, no doubt, part of Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” which Buchanan elaborates on in the film and of which, in the president’s mind, Cash was symbolically part of. That was part of Buchanan and others’ pitch.
But it didn’t go quite that smoothly. There was a public controversy preceding the performance about the latter song request. In the end, it didn’t matter. Cash played neither song. In fact, that band didn’t even know what songs they were going to perform.
“I didn’t have any idea what we was going to play,” Cash drummer W.S. Holland says. “It didn’t do any good to rehearse with Johnny Cash, because he didn’t know what he was gonna do.”
Cash opened with his famous hit “A Boy Named Sue” that evening. “We hope to show you a little bit of the soul of the South tonight” Cash said, warming the crowd.
Mid-set, he described his recent travel experience.
“I get asked a lot of questions about war, and drugs, and youths. This and that,” Cash said. “Well, we took our show to Long Bien Air Force base near Saigon, Vietnam. We did shows for them men over there. As many as we could for the time that we had.”
“Somebody said, ‘That makes you a hawk. You went to Vietnam,’” Cash said. “Nah, but after you watch the wounded come in on the helicopters, if you’re a dove you might come away a dove with claws.”
That’s when Cash performed the song that caught everyone’s attention, “What is Truth?”
“In order to say something that might be meaningful, you gotta get them on your side, so I had these words, a poem, I wrote to the youth of America,” Cash opened. He began signing, “and the lonely voice of youth cries ‘What is truth?’”
“A little boy of three sittin’ on the floor, Looks up and says, ‘Daddy, what is war?’ ‘Son, that’s when people fight and die,’ the little boy of three says ‘Daddy, why?’”
Cash’s eyes never left the audience. His sister, Joanne, says, “I saw the squirming in Nixon’s chair.” Nixon’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Alexander Butterfield, describes the moment as the president being shrewd, “Nixon was smart enough and attentive enough to be uncomfortable.”
“A young man of seventeen in Sunday school, being taught the Golden Rule,” Cash continued singing. “And by the time another year has gone around, it may be his turn to lay his life down.”
“Can you blame the voice of youth for asking, ‘What is truth?’”
It was no mystery what Cash was saying and to whom.
“Johnny had a way to say something in a song to get a point across,” Joanne said. “And he did it well. The most powerful man in the United States at that time, I think it got to him. He understood the message.”
“My father wasn’t afraid to say what he thought, which was ‘I hope to bring peace, but I’m not afraid to get dirty, and I’m not afraid to fight for what I believe in, and I’m not afraid to go where I’m uncomfortable to stand up for love,” said John Carter Cash of his dad.
“I’m a dove with claws.”
As the antiwar protests grew larger and louder, Buchanan recalled what he told Nixon at the time, “We’re in the middle of a revolution. So I told the president, ‘If we don’t stand up here, your presidency’s gonna be broken.”
A small part of trying to turn things around for Nixon from a PR standpoint, at least originally, was bringing Cash to the White House.
Of course, Buchanan at the time was firmly behind the president and against the protesters, but the philosophical journey Cash would make in the pop culture realm, bridging his conservative country audience with an antiwar ethos many observers at the time considered the exclusive property of the Left, was not that different from Buchanan’s journey in the political realm. Buchanan eventually became a prominent voice of the populist Right, but would also break bread with progressives like Ralph Nader (in the pages of The American Conservative, no less) and “black-nationalist Marxist” (as NBC’s Tim Russert described her) Lenora Fulani.
Buchanan and principled progressives agreed on trade and issues related to globalism, but the core binding Right-Left tie was almost always foreign policy. It’s why Buchanan co-founded TAC.
Two weeks after Cash’s White House performance, Nixon would announce the U.S. incursion in Cambodia. Then the Kent State shooting happened.
The antiwar movement exploded. Cash spoke to Americans again.
“Those young people out there seem to be trying to hold on to that part of our American heritage that they believe was good and beautiful,” Cash said in a monologue on his widely viewed TV program. “All they desire is to be listened to. They’re only exercising their freedom of speech, and God help you if that’s ever taken away from’ em, America.”
Cash’s last speech of this kind, months prior, showed support for the president. This one showed support for those protesting the president.
On Veterans Day 1970, Cash sang Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In the Wind” on his program. That too, was a statement. “Blowin’ in the Wind’ was a whistle,” says Zimmerman. “The quintessential antiwar anthem.”
“The people in the audience, half of them sat on their hands. The other half burst into a standing ovation,” Zimmerman says. “That was America.”
“Johnny Cash was America.”