Good Ole Cult

Redneck Power: The Wit and Wisdom of Billy Carter Edited and compiled by Jeremy Rifkin and Ted Howard Bantam Books, 1977. no page numbers; lots of pictures

A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO some smart publisher came out with a joke book called The Wit and Wisdom of Spiro Agnew--filled with blank pages. Billy Carter doesn't have any of Spiro Agnew's problems. He wasn't vice president (he couldn't even be elected mayor of Plains, Georgia) and when Billy pleaded "no contest" in court it was for selling beer on Sunday. That's the kind of material publishers and other purveyors of presidential pabulum realize people relate to nowadays at the supermarket counter. He's real, they say. "Billy Carter, philosopher-king, America's newest folk hero," the editors of this collection write.

He has become a friend and neighbor to millions of people he will probably never shake hands with. That's because when you get right down to it, Billy makes a lot of sense, and in these times, that's something.

What's really something is who wrote this tripe and collected all the quotes and photos, namely the co-directors of the People's Bicentennial Commission, a leftist group which staged dozens of protests against the government last year.

Aside from proving people will do anything for money and that hip capitalism is alive and kicking, the fact that Jeremy Rifkin and Ted Howard actually were the ones who slapped this fast-selling paperback together (in about 15 minutes it seems) indicates just how pervasive cultism in American politics has become.

It has been 16 years since the cult of First Family adulation last raised its head, since The Wit and Wisdom of Jack Kennedy, since the family, depicted as royalty on decks of cards, spawned a whole generation of charismaphiles. But that was the exception.

Milton Eisenhower, Samuel Houston Johnson, and Donald Nixon; dull college president, drunk gambler, and shady businessman respectively didn't have people tripping over each other trying to get their autographs.

Now, First Family cultism is back in a big way. What makes Billy Carter and redneck power such a phenomenon is the same thing that brought his brother out of the peanut warehouse. Populism (which is the element Rifkin and Howard respond to) is only part of the story. Far more potent is the affected lack of sophistication. Being ordinary is fashionable and it doesn't matter that the manifestations of that ordinary style emerge in completely different ways in the two brothers--both ways work.

Jimmy is well-liked for going to church; Billy calls it "hypocritical" and makes an appearance only when his children are baptized. The President pledged himself always to tell the truth; his brother says he's "not the Carter that doesn't tell a lie." Liquor is banned at state dinners; Billy drank it from the bottle at the Inauguration. In a very convenient way he represents everything his brother could not be as a candidate or as president but which is popular anyway. In terms of image, the whole thing is a bit too neat--the moral issues on which the President is both so popular and so vulnerable are balanced off too perfectly by Billy's redneck routine.

That's not to say Billy Carter is a fake. His candor, although not of the Will Rogers quality attributed to him by Rifkin and Howard, is clearly of an interesting and unrehearsed nature. No Carter aide told him, for instance, to say the President's biggest problem is that "he's around people that kiss his ass all the time."

He may be a shrewd businessman who reads books and presents himself as less intellectual than he actually is, but that is simply a reflection of self-deprecating Southern humor and a long-standing desire to be a "good ole boy" having a few brews and shooting the breeze at his gas station.

The commercialization of that image he blames on the media "about 95 per cent of (whom) would be on welfare if they weren't reporters," although he admits he himself has pushed the redneck idea "a little bit too far." In truth, he says, he is a good ole boy, not a redneck.

Well a good ole boy...is somebody that rides around in a pickup truck--which I do--and drinks beer and puts 'em in a litter bag. A redneck's one that rides around in a truck and drinks beer and throws 'em out the window.

The distinction is hardly significant, but then neither are the details of Billy's life, yet they're here too. A chronology shows him marrying his fifteen-year-old high school sweetheart, going off into the Marines because he "wants to be a bad-ass," flunking out of Emory University, watching his gas station almost blow up.

Aside from that, all he has as presented here is his dubious wit and reputation as a drinking man--the best known in America since W.C. Fields, the authors gush. He brags endlessly about his phenomenal partying abilities--his "cast iron stomach," beer for breakfast, minnow swallowing, guzzling at the banquet podium.

None of this is so amazing, of course, except for the fact that in addition to a mother who joined the Peace Corps at 68, one sister who's a faith healer and another who rides a motorcycle, Billy Carter's brother happens to be President of the United States. The cult that has sprung up around the First Family derives its strength in part from the novelty of that incongruence.