Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Willie and Jimmy: Our Real American Heroes

Willie Nelson and Jimmy Carter (illustration: Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast)
Willie Nelson and Jimmy Carter (illustration: Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast)

By Malcolm Jones, The Daily Beast
Two new autobiographies by two inexhaustible men reveal a roadmap for the richest kind of life

or a couple of weeks now, I have been enjoying the easygoing and remarkably addictive pleasure of Django and Jimmy, the new album by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. The title cut celebrates a pair of formative influences, Django Reinhardt and Jimmie Rodgers, and I could have stood a few tracks covering the work of those artists (Willie did put Django’s “Nuages” on a recent album and frequently performs it in concert). But this isn’t really a concept album. Instead, it’s just two great musicians having fun. Or should I say, still having fun. Merle is 78. Willie is 82. They could do anything they like—including nothing at all—at this stage of their illustrious careers. But they’ve chosen to make music, writing songs and performing actively. And thank goodness for that.

At the same time, I’ve also been reading the latest Willie Nelson autobiography, It’s a Long Story: My Life (the first version, Willie, appeared in 1988), as well as the autobiography of former President Jimmy Carter, A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety.

Both Nelson and Carter have indeed led long, full lives, and both clearly believe those lives are far from over. Carter ends his book talking about spending more time on his painting and woodworking—things he can do, he says, when he slows down and can no longer build houses for Habitat for Humanity, or go skiing, or broker another peace agreement. Willie ends a little more poetically, noting that even coming home is the beginning of another journey.

(I know it looks awkward to call one man by his first name and the other by his last, but it just feels dead wrong to call Willie anything but Willie, and never mind that I don’t know him any better than you do. And calling Jimmy Carter Jimmy sounds presumptuous, if not disrespectful. So from here on it’s Willie and Carter, and consistency be damned.)

If time has slowed either of these gentlemen, it would be hard to say how. Each man is clearly up and at it every day. Upon leaving the presidency in 1981, Carter quickly founded the Carter Center in Atlanta, which was initially a forum for crisis mediation around the globe before becoming one of the foremost NGOs in the fight against diseases in the Third World. As he writes, “I was not interested in just building a museum or storing my White House records and memorabilia; I wanted a place where we could work.” He has also been a highly visible volunteer with Habitat, and written countless books on subjects including public policy, his childhood, women’s rights, and nature, as well as books of poetry and even fiction: The Hornet’s Nest, about the American Revolution, is the only novel ever written by a president, and it’s not half bad. Typically, after people asked him repeatedly if he ever just kicked back and had fun, he wrote a book about that (downhill skiing, mountain climbing, birdwatching, and fly fishing).

Hard work is a constant theme in Carter’s life, whether it be farming, political campaigning, or mediating some international dispute. The child who took shorthand in school is father to the man who undertook a speed reading course when he reached the White House. But work, in Carter’s life, is never separated from learning something new, and learning is never separated from purpose. Perhaps this comes from the way he grew up. In the Depression-era South, if you wanted food, you grew it. If you wanted furniture, you built it. Self-sufficiency was not an ideal, it was simple reality.

A Southern boy like Carter, Willie grew up in rural Texas doing his share of farm work, too. In his case, of course, music was a much bigger part of life right from the start (his grandmother, who raised him and his sister, Bobbie, was the town’s music teacher). But here again, the principle of self-sufficiency held sway: if you wanted music, you made it yourself.

So, while Willie may be everybody’s favorite poster boy for kicking back, don’t be fooled. In his golden years, the man who early in life almost singlehandedly upended the Nashville sound (countrypolitan strings and woowoo choruses) has become legal marijuana’s most visible and eloquent proponent and the driving force behind Farm Aid—the annual concert that raises money to help the nation’s family farms—all while pursuing a recording and performing career that makes me tired just reading about it. Since turning 80, he writes, he’s “written a couple of dozen new songs, recorded five new albums, and performed over three hundred live concerts.” He left out the part about writing a new memoir.

No surprise, Willie’s book is the more entertaining of the two, although Carter gets points for writing his all by himself (Willie had a ghostwriter). But both are worth anyone’s time, because both are such clear expressions of the men who wrote them. Willie is a loquacious storyteller with a disarming knack for self-effacement. Carter is more clipped, more reserved—the truth of the matter often lies in things he doesn’t say, perhaps because that’s the way he was raised (when his father was upset about something or disagreed with something someone said, he would silently get up and leave the room). When Carter is fond of someone, e.g., Jerry Ford or George H.W. Bush, he says so wholeheartedly. Of his more strained relationships with, say, the Clinton or Obama White Houses, he maintains a discreet if not icy silence.

He is more forthcoming, and more than once, about his sexist attitudes as a husband over the years, when he would unilaterally decide to, say, run for state senate without consulting his wife. Crossing Rosalynn Carter, one gathers, is not something you do unthinkingly, at least not more than once.

The conventional wisdom denigrates Carter’s presidency and extols the man, but no one ever asks the obvious question: if a decent, hardworking, intelligent man can be great but can’t be a great president, isn’t there something wrong with the way we think about the presidency?

As for Willie, he may have led a messier life (four marriages, trouble with the IRS), but he’s the man who gave us “Crazy,” “Night Life,” and “Funny How Times Slips Away,” tunes that still remind us just how subtly artful—and how moving—good country songs can be.

At a time when genuine American heroes are hard to find, I’d say Jimmy Carter and Willie Nelson are as close as it gets and better than most. Neither man is falsely modest, but neither is full of himself. Both are still full of wonder—at the world and at what they’ve done in it. As Willie muses about his songwriting, “When songs fall from the sky … all I can do is catch them before they land. They are mysterious gifts [that] strip me bare and leave me amazed … Did I really write these songs, or am I just a channel chosen by the Holy Spirit to express these feelings?”

Men of faith, men of action, contemplative men who believe in getting things done and helping the downtrodden wherever and however they can—if I had to instruct kids coming along about where to look for heroes, I’d start with these books, which in their very different ways are like roadmaps for rich, useful lives.

And if an extraterrestrial were to approach me and ask, what does America have to show for itself, I wouldn’t hesitate. Ray Charles might be dead, I’d say, but Jimmy Carter and Willie Nelson still walk the planet. And if you think can do better than that, then let me introduce you to Dolly Parton.


+22 # Rockster 2015-07-12 21:53
Thx for reminding us of the actual strength of our nation.
I don't think that it's the American public that's so confused about what's good in a President as it is professional writers and talkers. The people know substance when they see it but pundits mostly want airtime and words published . I've lived thru a lot of Administrations and it's truly amazing how little correct the pundits get it in real time ! Truman was a little man in over his head . Really? Ike wasn't bright enough. Sorry. JFK was the real deal. Democratic little Bush. Clinton and Obama are scary liberals . Are your kidding me?
So what if the pundits are performers just working their particular angle to get ahead and we just act like we don't notice cause we actually like emotional reactions over substance? So Presidents Carter and Bush, Sr actually are real men who do and have done giving courageous work. But look at what is being trooped out for our emotional rantings pro and con for Repug Pres candidates ? Are you kidding me? How's a proper comedian to make a living?
Thanks Willie and Pres Carter for speaking and living your truths.
-1 # Philothustra 2015-07-13 11:22
Bush Sr? Of CIA fame? Was in Dallas somehow on Nov 22, 1963? Scion of the clan of pro-Nazi banker Prescott Bush?
A real pundit and competent writer would not compose a phrase such as "how little correct the pundits get it in real time"

Carter like "Little Bush" was an utterly incompetent prez who left the nation and economy in ruins, deregulated without a clue, botched the foreign policy switch with Iran, Nicaragua and many others, and by all agreements has only made up for that disaster by being such a nice guy as a ex-president! Eisenhower led the allies in the liberation of Europe and warned against the military industrial complex(i.e."th e Dulles Bros)
Truman stood up to Stalin. Could you?

Harry or Ike would punch you in the nose but they are not around to do it...
+13 # motamanx 2015-07-12 22:55
I'd love to know what "courageous work" Bush Sr has done. Ever.
0 # Krackonis 2015-07-13 09:59
He assassinated one sitting president, killed his up and coming brother and then when he became VP he tried to knock off Reagan and nearly succeeded... Running the country while Ronny napped and then became president for one term giving his "New World Order" speech, September 11th, 1991. His son had to kill off his old political rival's son just to make sure he could have the presidency...

Or that's my opinion... Could be wrong, but I would rather a grand jury figure it out.
+13 # Activista 2015-07-12 23:30
"relationships with, say, the Clinton or Obama White Houses"
how different the World and US foreign policy would be if Carter was a part ... especially the middle east ... is Carter too intelligent or has too much integrity for the present times?
-26 # egbegb 2015-07-12 23:57
As someone who had first hand experience with Carter's policies, I believe him to be incompetent. He was lovable, wanted to do right, but almost all his policies were ineffective. Incompetence defines the Carter Administration.

For you progressives on this thread, Jimmy Carter did invent and lead the de-regulation mantra that dereglated trucks, railroads and a bunch more. Y'all ought to attribute deregulation to Jimmy Carter because he started it.
+20 # tpmco 2015-07-13 03:39
Jimmy Carter was pretty successful at keeping the USA out of wars. He had the right idea for energy policy, he reinvigorated the USA space program, and he worked hard for a solution to problems in the Middle East. He even tried to start a new budget process within the executive branch, which USA would do well to revisit soon.

It wasn't incompetence that plagued his presidency, it was a lack of interest from the people.
+12 # cordleycoit 2015-07-13 03:04
I have seen some of the good that both these people have done with their time and effort. They are more than exceptions they are public intellectuals. They are doing what most real people do; sharing their time and vision.
One cannot even mention them with those aspiring to public office this election cycle,a sad, sorry and debauched ship of fools
+12 # ishmael 2015-07-13 05:18
Carter and Nelson have more real US in their little fingers than all the GOPee congresspeople and "Presidents" in their combined bodies since Eisenhower, including that idiot Reagan.
+4 # cwbystache 2015-07-13 06:57
The "country song" that has most spoken to me personally, is Willie's "Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly (Fond of Each Other)", which predated Brokeback Mountain and while not an entirely perfect statement, he (and Burt Reynolds, yikes!) at least tried. It floors me still:

"well a cowboy may brag
about things he has done with his women,
but the ones that brag loudest
are the ones that are most likely queer."
+2 # Ojai Bill 2015-07-13 10:32
I share the author's tremendous respect for both Willie and Carter, and there is real reason for discussing them together. The degree to which both have dramatically chartered their own distinctive path after first trying to conform to more typical and accepted patterns, Willie as a Nashville musician, Carter as a party politician rising to the Presidency, is exemplary for all of us. They both, in my view, reached their real prime when they broke free of the expectations and imposed roles from others and became truly free to be themselves, unafraid of the criticism of others, pursuing their own values and creative urges in their unique ways. Not all will agree with the label "hero", but that's a part of what characterizes those deserving the term.

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