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Cooter's America

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One of the few disappointments of Redneck Boy in the Promised Land, the memoirs of former congressman and television star Ben "Crazy Cooter" Jones, is that it ends at just under 300 pages. That's far too short for a man like Jones: He was born into an active port city during World War II, and he once exchanged drunken hellos with Jack Kerouac as they both urinated on a fence in Chapel Hill. He marveled at John F. Kennedy's flair on a campaign stop in Greenville, N.C., in 1960, and he spent years working with Catherine "Daisy Duke" Bach as they filmed The Dukes of Hazzard in the '70s. Great stories, it seems, have flown naturally to Jones for 66 years, and—in his book, as well as in conversation—he relays them with wit and ease.

And with those stories come strong opinions. Jones spent two terms in the United States House of Representatives in the late '80s and early '90s, and he's remained politically active and interested ever since. He's a poor Southern boy with strong progressive ideals, despite what folks may assume of his proud redneck past and present. Below, in an excerpt of an interview used for the story "Cooter comes home," Jones talks about the current crossroads of American politics and what we all must do.

INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: Speaking about politics, I imagine you're very interested in what's happening in America right now. It seems like we're at a crossroads, and—on most every level—we have to make a choice. What do you think we need?

"John McCain really isn't a man of vision. He's a good fella and all that, and he's served his country, but he's not a man of ideas and he's not a dynamic man and he offers nothing new."

BEN JONES: I believe it's time for a serious national self-evaluation. It is time for all of us—and nobody can opt out of this—everybody needs to become involved in a more objective look at where we are in the world, what we need to do, not just politically and certainly not economically but morally, to establish to ourselves as the nation we can be and should be. I think we've sort of gotten away from those things.

There are a lot of clichés and lapel-pen patriotism going on, and there's a lot of religiosity mixed up with business and politics. But we've really got to have a long, hard look at where we are, because we've painted ourselves into a corner. This last eight years has been a disastrous administration. We have by far the largest debt that any nation's ever had in the history of this planet. We've lost our industrial base. We've lost our agricultural base. We are, while becoming totally dependent on fossil fuel, sort of trashing our environment. Special interests, and in particular large corporate special interests, are calling the shots, and it's a crisis, in my opinion. That's what I mean: We really need to evaluate where we are and where we want to go from here. We can't just assume that we're the king of the plain, we're the big dog. We've got to fit into a world that's getting ever smaller and ever more dangerous in many ways. I wouldn't want to be the next president of the United States.

It seems to me—and I'm a Democrat, so everybody knows who I'm supporting—that John McCain has tied his little boat to a sinking ship. This election will ultimately be driven not by political philosophy so much: Right and left or conservative values verse liberal values, dah-dah-dah. And not by race, although some folks will try to make it about that. There are always people who weren't going to support somebody because of their color, but it's a small percentage of people who won't support Obama because of his father's color. That's going to be there, but it's not going to decide this election. This election is going to be decided by the economy, and elections almost always are. This economy doesn't show any signs of improving between now and November. There's nothing that indicates that things are going to get substantially better, and in fact, there are many things that show that things might get worse. We are in a recession. We are starting to see job loss and inflation due to the tripling of gas prices in just the last year or two, and that's incredible inflation. And people are losing their houses. People are losing their jobs. Truck drivers are losing their trucks. They can't even afford to put diesel in their trucks to deliver things, which makes everything problematic. People are paying four bucks for a loaf of bread. Wages are stagnant. And we're in a hell of a mess. [Laughs.]

I don't know what Barack Obama can do about it, but I'll say this: He's the most interesting and compelling and gifted political talent that I've seen since Jack Kennedy, since 1960. So this is a great political year, really, because we're at a very serious place. We are at a crossroads, is the good way to say it. Which way are we gonna go? There's the saying, "If you keep on doin' what you're doin', you're gonna keep on gettin' what you're gettin'." And I think people are starting to realize that. John McCain really isn't a man of vision. He's a good fella and all that, and he's served his country, but he's not a man of ideas and he's not a dynamic man and he offers nothing new. In fact, he seems to be offering four more years of this pretty awful leadership.

So Barack Obama, if he is elected, is going to have the toughest job of any president ever that I can imagine. I mean Franklin Roosevelt had the Depression and World War II, I guess, but it will be equal to that or of Lincoln and a divided nation at war. He's got that tough of a job, and it will take every skill that he's got—and he's got 'em—to bring this country together around some kind of comity, of people seeking a common bond and common solutions rather than this terrible divisive difference we've had.

But I don't see how that can happen as long as powerful special interests control the agenda, whether they're on the right or the left. That's what the parties have become. For Obama to get elected, he has to understand that there's a whole heartland culture where the Democratic Party was born—the blue-collar working people, the small farmers, the small business people—who feel like the Democratic Party doesn't give a damn about ‘em, and there are others who do. I don't think that's the case, but people feel that way for a reason. The Democratic Party has lost its resonance with its natural constituency, and he really needs to work to connect with that.

INDEPENDENT WEEKLY:That loss for Democrats, what do you attribute it to—the religious right and the Democratic platform on certain issues, or something else?

BEN JONES:I think that's part of it, yeah. I think there are some people who are saying they're practicing religion when they're practicing business and politics. To me, it's almost like a cosmetic faith of some sort. I don't know, but it doesn't seem like a deep and lasting faith. I've seen this where I feel like, These people are not practicing Christianity. They're just talking about it. They're using it for political reasons and personal reasons, and they're angry, condemning ministers and followers who don't seem to be to me practicing what… I'm a Christian, and I'm told not to judge anybody else, and I don't like it when they judge me. Get what I'm saying? I shouldn't be judging them, but that's the sense I get about a lot of the so-called Christian right. I don't think Christ intended for there to be a Christian right or a Christian left or a Christian middle. He just meant, Do unto others as you'd have them do unto you, and follow my instructions here and be humble and do right. It's a very simple religion. It's very hard to master because we're human beings, but it's simple. [Laughs.]

It's more complicated than that. There are libraries filled with books about what happened. In the South, after the Civil Rights movement, [there] was the Southern Strategy—Richard Nixon, Lee Atwater, Strom Thurmond—that made a more subtle appeal to people's prejudices. It was easy for them to do because they could tie it all up with the Democratic Party. Free-love, abortion-on-demand, take-away-your-guns, orgy-havin', dope-smokin': That was the picture they painted, and that's what Democrats were in their version of things—a bunch of radical kids that were amoral. And nobody wants to raise their kids into that.

But a part of that was this appeal to that, in the South, the Democratic Party is a black party. I've heard people say that. They don't say it that nicely, but people say that. And the Republican Party is the white party. I've heard people say that. [Laughs.] And you go, "Wait a minute. Whoa, whoa whoa. This ain't the way it's supposed to be." At any rate, the Democratic Party has to show that it does stand for traditional values. There's nothing wrong with that—wanting your children to be healthy and happy, and family and getting together and wanting to have a strong family base. It might mean different things to different people, but to me... People are asking me now about "redneck," and I'm like, look, it just means somebody who's a working person. If you use it as an insult or somebody else uses it, that's their problem. Me and most folks I know and people that live around here, we got no problem with that word. It means that we're working people, that we're not pretentious, that we're not some phony elitist thing that we've gotten above our raising or that we feel we are superior to our neighbors. Those are good values.

Ben Jones makes three area appearances this week. Two are in bookstores: The Regulator Bookshop on Wednesday, June 18, at 7 p.m., and Quail Ridge Books on Friday, June 20, at 7 p.m. On Thursday, June 19, in Chapel Hill, "Ben Jones Day" will be observed with a book signing and pig picking at the Dead Mule Club from 4-7 p.m.

Sumita Dutta contributed to this story.

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