White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America (2016)
THE WHITE TRASH MAKEOVER
Deliverance, Billy Beer, and Tammy Faye
The first Cracker President should have been a mixture of Jimmy and Billy [Carter] … Billy’s hoo-Lord-what-the-hell-get-out-the-way attitude heaving up under Jimmy’s prudent righteousness—or Jimmy’s idealism heaving up under Billy’s sense of human limitations—and forming a nice-and-awful compound like life in Georgia.
—Roy Blount Jr., Crackers (1980)
As identity politics rose as a force for good in the last decades of the twentieth century, authenticity was to be achieved by registering, and then heeding, the voices of previously marginalized Americans. Whites could no longer speak for people of color. Men could no long speak for women. The New Left, civil rights, and Black Power movements of the 1960s had helped to jump-start the second-wave feminist movement, yet identity politics was not the possession of the left alone. Richard Nixon rode into office in 1968 by claiming to represent the interests of the “Silent Majority” of Americans who saw themselves as hardworking, middle American homeowners dutifully paying their taxes and demanding little of the federal government.1
One could argue that identity has always been a part of politics, that aspiring people adopt identities the same way that they change their style of dress. Yet this is only part of the story. Some people can choose an identity, but many more have an identity chosen for them. White trash folks never took on that name for themselves, nor did the rural poor describe their plight in recognition of having been cast out of society as “waste people,” “rubbish,” or “clay-eaters.” As we have seen, Union soldiers and Lincoln Republicans embraced the intended insult of “mudsill” when it was hurled at them from across the Mason-Dixon Line. But that was because they possessed the cultural power to shape political discourse. The dispossessed had no such power.
Eventually, self-identified “white trash” who had come up in the world began defending their depressed class background as a distinct (and perversely noble) heritage. Before the end of the 1980s, “white trash” was rebranded as an ethnic identity, with its own readily identifiable cultural forms: food, speech patterns, tastes, and, for some, nostalgic memories. If immigrants had foreign origins to reflect on, white trash invented a country of their own within the United States. In its most benign incarnation, this substratum of the amorphous American class system was no longer to be categorized as an inferior “breed” (with undesirable genetic traits) so much as a product of cultural breeding that could easily be shed and later recovered—a tradition, or identity, that one did not have to shy away from in order to gain acceptance in mainstream society. In its worst form, however, white trash identity dredged up a person’s early traumatic experiences, repressed childhood memories. A not insignificant part of that was sexual deviance, a problem that still hovers over white trash America today. Hollywood gave the country an enduring symbol of that deviance, and the unwanted’s recourse to barbarism, in its adaptation of James Dickey’s violent thriller Deliverance (1970). Set in rural Georgia near the South Carolina border, the film, released in 1972, seared into the national imagination its devastating portrait of white trash ugliness and backwoods debauchery.
No matter whether it is cast as urban or rural, religious or secular, Anglo- or other hyphenate, the search for national belonging is never new. Despite the nasty cultural memory jarred loose by the retrogressive message in Deliverance (and especially the horrific rape of Ned Beatty’s character), the backcountry of America never completely lost its regenerative associations. Appalachia remained in the minds of many a lost island containing a purer breed of Anglo-Saxon. Here, in this imaginary country of the past, is where the best of Jefferson’s yeoman “roots” could be traced. Most of all, there was a raw masculinity to be found in the hills. A larger trend was turning America into a more ethnically conscious nation, one in which ethnicity substituted for class. The hereditary model had not been completely abandoned; instead, it was reconfigured to focus on transmitted cultural values over inbred traits.
An inherent paradox added to the confusion over the nature of cultural identity. Modern Americans’ largely blind pursuit of the authentic, stable self was taking place in a country where roots could be, and often were, discarded. In the American model, assimilation preceded social mobility, which required either adoption of a new identity or assumption of a class disguise in order to insert oneself into the desired category of middle class. Yet by the late 1960s the middle class had become the most inauthentic of places: the suburbs provided indelible images of foil-covered TV dinners, banal Babbittry, and bad sitcoms. People took part in staid dinner parties, evocatively portrayed in The Graduate, where the talk was of a career-making investment in plastics—and what better stood for inauthenticity than unnatural products invented by chemists? There was a growing awareness that middle-class comfort was an illusion. Two sociologists ironically concluded that the few authentic identities still claimable in 1970 existed in the isolated pockets of the rural poor: Appalachian hillbillies in Tennessee, marginal dirt farmers in the upper Midwest, and “swamp Yankees” in New England.2
The broadcast of An American Family on PBS in 1973 gave millions of viewers a palpable sense of middle-class life. As television’s first attempt at a “reality” show, the Loud family saga was a study in dysfunction—a decade removed from Ozzie and Harriet, and emotional light-years from the tame, kid-friendly Brady Bunch. Three hundred hours of taping over the course of a year was edited down to twelve hours of riveting television.
Outsiders may have cared about the new TV family, but a New York Times Magazine article on the Louds described their world as a cultural vacuum: they had few hobbies, cared little about suffering in the world at large, and seemed emotionally short-circuited when attempting to deal with one another. The parents, Bill and Pat, were getting separated, but to the husband, who avoided conflict and admitted to no failures, their pending divorce came devoid of introspection. In the words of commentator Anne Roiphe, the breakup of a marriage was experienced by him as “a minor toothache.” Amid filming, the Louds’ house burned down, and even that barely fazed them. They floated through life like “jellyfish,” transparent and unresponsive; they valued “prettiness” and gave no attention to any but their outwardly attractive and successful neighbors; they were nonplussed when it came to “those who do not make it.”
As Roiphe sublimely put it, with reference to Mario Puzo’s Godfather clan, “Maybe it’s better to be a Corleone than a Loud.” At least the Sicilians’ tribal, violent character got the blood flowing. (She might just as well have used “redneck” in place of “Corleone.”) Blind to their blandness, the Louds were adrift, like so many others of the seventies middle class. Roiphe’s updated motto for the family sampler: “Be it ever so hollow, there’s no place like home.”3
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Historical fictions provided a solution for cultural longing. Alex Haley’s Roots (1976) created a media sensation. It spent twenty-two weeks atop the New York Times bestseller list before becoming a twelve-hour miniseries that won nine Emmys. Haley had done something few imagined possible: he had traced his African American family’s history back to a village in Gambia.
The author’s success was based wholly on his claims to have discovered his paternal ancestor, Kunta Kinte, who acquired the name Toby in America. Haley insisted that he had spent long years doing careful research that had enabled him to prove that his family’s oral history (and that told by an African storyteller) could be corroborated with archival documentation. The dialogue in his book may have been made up, but the family saga was a true slice of history.
Impressed by this gargantuan effort, the New York Times praised Haley for his “wealth of authentic detail,” and for having instilled his narrative with the “feel of history.” The most prominent review in the newspaper of record averred, “Its truths have been quarried by a mountain of facts.” Newsweek likewise lauded the work as an “extraordinary social document, grounded in exhaustive research and animated by a grand passion for personal and historical truth.” But it was all a lie.4
Far from uncovering his real roots, it was discovered that the mega-selling author had invented his lineage. Controversy over his historical claims hit the news in 1977, as prominent journalists and scholars called his work a “fraud,” and the full story unfolded over the next five years. He had manipulated his family oral accounts and embellished his family tree in order to tell a grand tale of an exceptional heritage that never existed. For starters, the Gambian storyteller he relied upon merely told Haley what he wanted to hear. The historical Toby was not even born with the name Kunta Kinte—that genealogical lineage was pure fiction. While Haley’s Africa was not a caricature on the order of Tarzan’s overripe jungle, it was a half-conscious or self-conscious distortion: he converted Gambia into a place mirroring middle America, as a land of many villages. The actual village of his reputed ancestors, as Haley admitted, was a British trading post, not the symbolic West African “Eden” it was portrayed as, a pristine world to constitute for history-hungry Afro-Americans a reverse Plymouth Rock.5
If that were the extent of the author’s crimes, it would be bad enough. But Haley’s attempts at research actually exposed far more serious errors. The birthdates of Kunta Kinte’s American progeny were wrongly given, and Haley attributed to his family tree the names of people to whom he was unrelated. Neither the white nor the black families archived in Roots matched existing historical records.
As to his descent from the white Lea family of North Carolina, Haley completely invented a villainous cracker character named Tom Lea, who raped Kunta Kinte’s daughter, Kizzy (Haley’s alleged direct ancestor), and betrayed his own mulatto son, “Chicken George,” by selling off his family. This could not have occurred, because the historical Thomas Lea was already dead by that time. And Lea was not in fact Haley’s “po’ cracker,” but a prosperous landowner with sixteen thousand acres and numerous slaves; some of his relatives held prestigious political offices.
The class element in Roots was, in this way, as wrong on the American side as on the African. Nor was there a shred of evidence that Haley’s lost Gambian ancestors were of an elite bloodline, and Toby/Kunte Kinte a breed and a class above the African American field hands who did the most backbreaking labor in the U.S. South. Yet for Haley, Kunta Kinte in America had to be fashioned as a man who honored the memory of his proud African ancestors; and in spite of his enslaved condition, he and his family had to set themselves apart from their low-class cracker relatives.6
Let us be clear, then. Besides being a fabrication of his family’s history, Haley’s book applied a kind of logic that was downright conservative. He construed himself as one of an African nobility, and he held that ancestry said a lot about what a person could become—and pass on. Roots was too good to be true, which was why Haley, who pitched his story to the networks before he had even written it, was eventually exposed as a hoaxer and a hustler.7
Haley’s Roots demonstrated how easy it was to invent a pedigree. Fictional family trees were all the rage. James A. Michener, arguably the most popular of twentieth-century historical fiction writers, produced a primarily white version of Roots in his novel Chesapeake (1978). Michener followed several families of varying class backgrounds and tied their destinies to a landscape dotted with geese and blue herons. The white trash lineage he covers originates with one Timothy Turlock, whom Michener describes as “small, quick, sly, dirty of dress and habit,” and the father of “six bastards.” After an undistinguished life in England, Turlock was unceremoniously dumped on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in the 1600s, and lived in a swamp.8
Multiple generations later, little had changed for the Turlock clan. Amos Turlock was a toothless crank living in a trailer in the 1970s. As one reviewer put it, “feral marshlanders” anchored the entire narrative. The Turlocks remained one with their terrain. Amos surrounded his trailer with tacky statuary of Santa and the Seven Dwarfs; he derived the greatest pleasure in finding his way around the game warden and ranging about with his extra-long (illegal) Twombly gun that he used to hunt geese. The Turlocks of Michener’s historical reinvention were all cunning—savage survivalists.9
As sweeping narratives and small-screen histories accompanied the nation’s bicentennial celebrations of 1976, it should come as no surprise, then, that the founders themselves provided a dynastic saga worthy of a miniseries. The Adams Chronicles traced the path of a crusty New England farmer, John Adams, to the presidency, and carried forward with his descendants, three generations’ worth. The Chronicles led up to the accomplished Henry Adams, a strong-minded historian whose life crossed into the twentieth century.
In his introduction to the PBS treatment’s companion book, Professor Daniel Boorstin, the newly appointed Librarian of Congress, recast John Adams as an oxymoron: a “self-made aristocrat.” His well-known “vanity,” his “independence from public opinion” morphs into an “Adams tradition,” redefining class arrogance as an admirable family trait. There were no Turlocks in these Chronicles, so the rabble-rouser Samuel Adams stood in for the “slippery” side of the family. “Plain” John Adams was contrasted with his social climber of a cousin, who insisted on being chauffeured in a fancy carriage when he attended the Continental Congress.10
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Amid the reconstruction of classes taking place in the 1970s, the political status of twentieth-century ethnics endured a series of changes, beginning with President Nixon’s attempts to appeal to a different breed of “forgotten Americans” than those embraced by FDR’s New Deal. Those whom Nixon wished to connect with were the “White Lower Middle Class” identified by Pete Hamill in a 1969 New York magazine article. They were the alienated “rabble,” and Nixon promised to embrace the “Silent Majority” as the backbone of America—hardworking and true. Michael Novak, in The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics (1972), took the argument one step further, claiming that ethnic Americans were better Americans, because they understood the traditional values of loyalty, love of the flag, and hard work, and they did not expect government to provide unfair special assistance (as they imagined blacks were doing).11
The welfare system was one of the issues dividing Americans at this time. Some Nixon supporters acknowledged that there were hardworking people among welfare recipients who only occasionally took government assistance; but there were others, less deserving, whom they saw as permanently trapped in a cycle of dependence. Critics of welfare tended to see the issue as a racial one, but the reality was different. Among the “forgotten masses” were an estimated 17.4 million poor whites, and the majority of them lived in the South. In 1969, women took the lead in the welfare rights movement when a group of the disaffected in Beaufort, South Carolina, refused to be silent over delays in receiving their food stamps. One Mrs. Frazier, who had organized a day care program, led the “welfare mothers” in a visually powerful protest. At the same time as a group of wealthy women were holding their annual Beaufort historic homes and gardens tour, she organized a tour of poor homes. In the larger national debate, though, Nixon’s supporters were seen angrily complaining about how welfare “breeds weak people.” Poverty was once again being blamed on questionable breeding, and hard work was proclaimed as the means through which strong families put down solid roots and achieved upward mobility. To Frazier, welfare and day care were necessary if one were to be able to hold a job and feed a family. Starvation was a real danger—indeed the poor in South Carolina were still battling parasites like hookworm.12
During the ethnic revival that urbanites celebrated in the 1970s, hardworking Greeks and Italians and Chinese propped up family tradition, as neighborhood restaurants in Chinatowns grew in popularity. The celebratory impulse over ethnic cooking was a middle-class phenomenon, and poverty was softened when it could be seen through the hazy glow of times gone by. The ethic of hard work itself was now engrafted onto ethnic and family genealogical trees. Past poverty was no encumbrance; roots, whatever they were, were not a stain upon the present. In summing up Irving Howe’s World of Our Fathers (1976), an affectionate story of the ethnic life of Jews on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, one reviewer concluded, “Everybody wants a ghetto to look back on.”13
When it led to social mobility, ethnic identity was seen as a positive attribute. Unappealing (or un-American) idiosyncracies were cleaned up; the food, literature, music, and dress promoted; and the whole ethnicity set apart from the diseased and dirty huddled masses who came through Ellis Island. Heritage, like historic memory itself, is always selective. Ethnics and poor folk can be admired from afar, or from a temporal distance, as long as doing so ensures the supremacy of the middle class in the narrative. People can choose to treasure those parts of their heritage that they see as favorable and wish to keep, jettisoning what unpleasant truths they would prefer to forget.
The same impulses would soon be used to refashion the redneck and embrace white trash as an authentic heritage. It was moonshiners known for trippin’ whiskey and outrunnin’ the law who started the rough and wild sport of stock car racing. By the seventies, with money from Detroit automobile companies and celebrity drivers, an outlaw sport had become NASCAR, the tamer pastime of arriviste middle-class Americans. Meanwhile, country crooners Johnny Russell and Vernon Oxford released the hit singles “Rednecks, White Socks, and Blue Ribbon Beer” (1973) and “Redneck! (The Redneck National Anthem)” (1976). Vernon Oxford defined “redneck” as “someone who enjoys country music and likes to drink beer.” In 1977, the year Elvis died, the new queen of country rock music, Dolly Parton, was featured in the elite fashion magazine Vogue. “Redneck chic” (the cleaned-up redneck) reached Hollywood in the 1981 film Urban Cowboy, in which Jersey boy John Travolta took on the role of hard-hat-wearing, honky-tonk-loving Texas two-stepper Buford Davis. In 1986, Ernest Matthew Mickler’s White Trash Cooking was published, celebrating low-down lingo and rural recipes. When Mickler, a country singer as well as a caterer, gave his book to his seventy-two-year-old aunt, she remarked, “Well, that’s what they call us, ain’t it?”14
The transition to white trash acceptance or accommodation was not as smooth as it might seem. While Dolly Parton made over-the-top “floozydom” fashionable, and combined the burlesque of blonde bombshells Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield with Daisy Mae of Li’l Abner fame, her public identity did not escape the taint of white trash degradation. “You have no idea how much it costs to make someone look this cheap,” Parton told a reporter in 1986. The Hollywood blockbuster Deliverance lacked even an ounce of delicacy, but offered up instead one of the most devastating portraits of rude hillbillies since the eugenics movement faded from view. White middle-class readers of the novel and film audiences wrote fan mail to author James Dickey, praising the four intrepid Atlanta adventurers as if they were old-time pioneers overcoming wilderness dangers while escaping the clutches of white trash savages. A former student of Dickey’s wrote fawningly to his mentor, apparently oblivious to the dehumanizing tone of his letter. He was an ardent backwoods hiker, he said, “though I carry no bow and there are no rednecks awaiting me at the top for me to stalk and kill.” He could not differentiate, in moral terms, between the thrill of taking on the mountains and the thrill of sending mountain men to their deaths.15
Class hostility persisted. Many southern suburbanites had no sympathy for the white trash underclass in their section. They drew a sharp class line between the lower-class rednecks and the “upscale rednecks.” Lillian Smith, a Southern novelist and civil rights activist, identified the places where these toxic feelings stewed. Like the blue-collar ethnics in northern cities who switched their allegiance to the Republican Party, marginally middle-class southerners hated the “weak, lazy, good-for-nothing ones who whine all month until the relief check comes in.” Seeing themselves as hardworking and self-reliant, the upwardly mobile sons of white trash parents believed, as Smith put it, that “he is responsible for himself and himself alone.” The same self-made man who looked down on white trash others had conveniently chosen to forget that his own parents escaped the tar-paper shack only with the help of the federal government. But now that he had been lifted to respectability, he would pull up the social ladder behind him.
So suburban white animosity toward blacks was repeated in the treatment of poor whites. Smith found that the formerly poor southern white and the upwardly mobile immigrant population had something in common: “What everyone has always wanted in this country, what most came here for, was to get away from all those others who smell bad, are sleeping in a shanty, and are eating fatback and are going to loaf tomorrow because there is no job to go to.” Moving up meant staying ahead of those still trapped in the “poverty ditch.” But rather than help others escape destitution, this new addition to the middle class deeply resented a government that wasted money on the poor.16
Democrat Robert Byrd of West Virginia fit this mold. Newly elected as the Senate whip in 1971 by beating the patrician Edward Kennedy, he was, as the New York Times Magazine quoted, the “po white kid that could climb to the seat of the mighty and whip millionaires.” An orphan, a former butcher and grocer who boasted having Lyndon Johnson as his patron, Byrd made his mark by attacking welfare, rioters, and communism. He hired investigators to kick cheaters off the welfare rolls in Washington, DC. Rioters, he declared with marked callousness, deserved to be mowed down, and looters shot on sight “swiftly and mercilessly.” Byrd made himself one of the most hated men in the Senate, where he was compared to Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde, and Uriah Heep—the obsequious, greedy, upwardly mobile clerk in Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield. After Byrd became whip, one top Senate aide remarked that Democrats would now have to look up at the “pinched Mephistophelian features of a redneck who made good.”
Byrd referred to people on welfare as “fornicating deadbeats.” He even appeared unsympathetic to children obtaining government assistance: if they were merely hungry, but not starving, they did not merit aid. As a former member of the Ku Klux Klan, Byrd conveniently distinguished welfare recipients in the District of Columbia (mostly black) from the deadbeats of his home state of West Virginia. Thus he made no effort to root out welfare cheaters among the mountain whites; they were his ticket into politics. In his first run for office, he courted the hillbilly crowd by playing fiddle tunes in the backseat of a car as he went from shack to shack. Reenacting the old tale of the Arkansas traveler, he cleverly played both roles in the nineteenth-century drama: the poor white and the ambitious politician. The New York Times declared Byrd to be the “embodiment of poor white power.” He was Lillian Smith’s angry redneck, who had “hacked his way out of the bushes” of poverty. As a symbol of political intolerance, he was as ruthless as they came.17
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At the other end of the spectrum was the Georgian Jimmy Carter, a liberal Democrat who, when elected in 1970, appeared on the cover of Time as one of the “new southern governors.” Though decades removed from odious southern politicians like James Vardaman and Eugene Talmadge, Carter still had to run a “redneck” campaign in order to win. He could not ignore the example of Alabama governor George Wallace, who could ignite the white man’s rage. To capture the votes of blue-collar and rural voters, Carter painted his equally liberal opponent Carl Sanders as a corporate lawyer out of touch with the average man. Nicknaming Sanders “Cuff Link Carl,” Carter’s staff devised a television commercial with a closed country club door and a voice-over saying, “People like us aren’t invited. We’re too busy working for a living.” Carter’s team circulated the ugliest pictures of their candidate they could find in order to make him look like a poor country boy—in some he was riding a tractor. His money came from the honest trade of peanut farming, and from a warehousing operation—or so the logic went. Jimmy Carter was not one of the “Big Wigs” in Atlanta or Washington.18
During the runoff election, Sanders’s team went on the offensive, producing flyers with photographs of the run-down homes of the tenants on Carter’s peanut farm. The flyer’s caption played off Carter’s own slogan: “Isn’t it time someone spoke up for these people?” The most damning of the opposition flyers had Carter climbing into bed with a racist leader. Here Carter was drawn as a clownish, barefoot redneck—the absurdity exacerbated by his polka-dotted suit. The point was that he was a leopard who could change his spots, manipulating his class identity just enough to satisfy politically conservative voters. The attack was not far from the truth: Carter was okay with alienating black voters in the primary, but in the general election he shifted, toning down his redneck appeal.19
As a politician, Carter was forced to endure a screening of Deliverance in Atlanta in 1972. He remained wary of its promoters’ claim that the film was good for the state. Indeed, James Dickey and Jimmy Carter were two Georgians who had absolutely nothing in common. Carter was a Baptist and had a teetotaler wife, while Dickey was an outrageous alcoholic and an egomaniac, born to wealth. Haunted by insecurity after a pampered and effeminate youth, Dickey reinvented himself as the child of hillbillies—one of the many lies he told about himself. His North Georgia relatives were actually large landowners, whose past holdings included a considerable number of slaves.20
Dickey’s novel, published in 1970, was a tortured exploration of lost manhood, an attempt to recover his “inner hillbilly.” On the surface, the novel (and film) is about four men on a canoe trip in Appalachia. When the chubby bachelor Bobby (Ned Beatty) is raped in the movie by one of the mountain men, he is called a “sow” and told by his attacker to “squeal like a pig.” In the psychosexual thriller, the dandified city folk aren’t merely given their comeuppance; they are forced to rediscover their primal instincts. Dickey saw this as a good thing, and his hero ends up a stronger man. In one interview, the novelist admitted that the lure of the backcountry was to him the possibility of one’s becoming a “counter-monster,” behaving as men did who lived in remote parts, “doing whatever you felt compelled to do to survive.” In the novel and film alike, the city men commit two murders, conceal the death of one of their traveling companions, Ronny Cox’s character Drew, and make a pact never to reveal what happened on their ill-fated trip. Rechristened as blood brothers, the surviving trio carry their dark secrets away with them.21
Drew had to die. He was the only one of the four Atlanta businessmen who showed any compassion for rural people. He reached out to the idiot-savant teenager after their banjo-and-guitar duet. (Lonnie, the character in the novel, was supposed to be an albino.) The film’s message was clear: sympathy was a sign of weakness that city boys had to overcome. Only by resorting to violence and taking a vicarious plunge into the uncensored psyche of the backwoodsman could they recover their feral redneck roots.22
Dickey’s story had its giant appeal because the search he described found expression elsewhere in American society. NASCAR offered the same kind of allure, as Tom Wolfe wrote in Esquire. Men without inhibitions who lived for the momentary pleasure of danger had no fear of the consequences of their actions. North Carolinian driver Junior Johnson was not just a “hero a whole people or class can identify with,” he was a “rare breed” who had gone from whiskey running in the isolated hills and hollows of his home state to stock car racing. He had it all: money, a split-level house, a poultry business. He might have exchanged his overalls for a windbreaker with the collar up, and “Slim Jim” white pants, but this “breed of old boy” proved something major by driving at 175 miles per hour with a kind of madness that was “raw and hillbilly.” That was the appeal.23
The macho star of Deliverance, Burt Reynolds, went on to make a southern-accented film that was an homage to the stock car racer’s way of life. In Smokey and the Bandit (1977), Reynolds’s character lived for the chase and ran from the law, while his female companion (played by Sally Field) was a runaway bride—both of them rejecting civilization’s restraints. The Reynolds of this film was a modern-day squatter like good old Sug, respected because he refused to knuckle down and join the daily grind of working to get ahead. Smokey and the Bandit was the second highest grossing film in 1977, but most of its popularity was in the South and Midwest. Adding to the mix, in 1979, CBS launched The Dukes of Hazzard, the plots of which revolved around rebel moonshiners decked out in a bright red racing car, and a sexy kissing cousin named Daisy, whose trademark was her high-cut jean shorts. Denver Pyle was cast as Uncle Jesse, known for his overalls and countrified homilies; Pyle had previously played Briscoe Darling Jr., the surly father of a musical hillbilly clan in The Andy Griffith Show.24
Wannabe bandits were among the thousands of spectators at NASCAR who launched into rebel yells, drank too much, and ogled the floozy on the float with her “big blonde hair and blossomy breasts” and cheap Dallas Cowgirl outfit. They embraced a certain species of freedom—the freedom to be a boor, out in the open and without regrets. The “upscale rednecks,” the rising white trash middle class, identified with these hillbilly racers, men who had escaped the overalls and gained as much respect as could be had in accepting wads of cash from Detroit. Class structure had not changed appreciably for the rural poor: money may have made a hillbilly or two reputable, but those left in the hills were not reaping any social benefits. “Upscale rednecks” had no trouble spotting those below them in their rearview mirrors.25
Jimmy Carter’s presidency seemed to offer a break from past southern politicians. He was a born-again Christian and navy officer (with training in nuclear physics) who predicated his 1976 campaign on his refusal to lie to the voters. In the early days of the campaign, he gave an unusual stump speech to elementary school children in New Hampshire, proclaiming that the United States could have a “government as good and as honest and as decent and as competent and as compassionate and as filled with love as the American people.” Here was a sentimental democrat, a gospel-infused Christian populist, leaps and bounds from the anger-fueled populism of the old (redneck) South.26
Of all his predecessors, Carter probably came closest to Frank Clement’s clean-cut demeanor, but he mostly kept his religious views to personal statements. He was no gyrating entertainer like Clement, nor (at five foot seven) was he a giant-sized jokester like “Big Jim” Folsom. He preferred to compare himself to Yale graduate and Tennessee liberal Estes Kefauver. The campaign rhetoric contained a “log cabin” story that captured the family’s rise, but it left out the fact that Jimmy grew up with a tennis court in the backyard. He did express southern pride, though, gaining the support of country rock groups such as the Allman Brothers. His political handlers were sure to fashion a radio ad for the pickup truck crowd: “We’ve been the butt of every bad joke for a hundred years. Don’t let the Washington politicians keep one of us out of the White House.” The closest Carter came to acknowledging cracker roots was when he quoted the words of his supporter (his future United Nations ambassador) Andrew Young that he was “white trash made good.” That made the peanut farmer Jimmy Carter “reformed” white trash. As a black congressman from Georgia, Young was suggesting that it was possible for the old hostility between poor blacks and whites to be overcome.27
As much as he rose above the dirty politics of the Nixon years, Carter’s Sunday school teacher persona could go only so far. His image problem was cleverly summed up by fellow Georgian Roy Blount Jr. in the book Crackers (1980). Rather than find his inner redneck as James Dickey had, Carter ran on everything he wasn’t: “He wasn’t a racist, an elitist, a sexist, a Washingtonian, a dimwit, a liar, a lawyer … an ideologue, a paranoid, a crook.” He was always in denial. By taking the “meanness and hambone out of the redneck,” Blount reasoned, Carter was left without “force or framework.” And no matter how liberal, how tolerant and accommodating he appeared, Carter’s redneck shadow followed him. In that shadow the media lay in wait, preoccupied with Jimmy’s toothy grin, his strange duel with a swamp rabbit, and, most notably, his redneck doppelgänger—brother Billy.28
Carter was the perfect candidate of the seventies, because he was someone who came to politics with “roots.” He ran as the man from tiny Plains, as one who loved the land, loved his kin, and treasured his local community. That simple heritage was his calling card, and as a profile in the Christian Science Monitor concluded, “Few cling to their roots with more tenacity.” Like Alex Haley, he was obsessed with his family’s genealogy. He successfully cultivated his “common man” origins until a British publication on the peerage released a startling twenty-three-page finding on the Carter family lineage in 1977. Instead of descending from indentured servants, the president had one of the most significant family histories in the English-speaking world: he was related to both George Washington and the queen of England. The New York Times projected that his fellow Americans would find this discovery “amusing.” It tempered the British announcement with a reminder to readers that some of the Carters in old England were poachers, the American equivalent of would-be moonshiners. Noble blood or hillbilly moonshiners? A spokesman for the British study, Debrett’s Peerage, invoked eugenic thinking when he claimed that the Carter family had produced “intelligent to brilliant” people. The family line had its share of “sleepers,” the expert confided, and it was from those less successful branches that Jimmy’s brother Billy had acquired his less fine attributes.29
That said, Billy Carter was no sleeper. He became a redneck luminary, and tourists poured into the Carters’ hometown of Plains looking for autographs and photographs with the down-home celebrity. He began producing his own beer, Billy Beer, and hired an agent to coordinate talks he gave around the country. He was known for voicing ornery, uncensored opinions. Billy smoked five packs of Pall Malls a day, and his code name on the CB radio was “Cast Iron,” for his iron-gutted ability to drink anything and a lot of it. He was no “Holy Roller,” no celebrant of the “Lost Cause.” When asked what side he would have fought on in the Civil War, Billy joked, “I’d probably hid out in the swamp.” In 1981, after his brother left office, Billy was peddling mobile homes.30
Roy Blount said he wished that Jimmy had a bit more of Billy in him, a little more irreverence and sass: “The first Cracker President should have been a mixture of Jimmy and Billy, … Billy’s hoo-Lord-what-the-hell-get-out-the-way attitude heaving up under Jimmy’s prudent righteousness—or Jimmy’s idealism heaving up under Billy’s sense of human limitations—and forming a nice-and-awful compound like life in Georgia.” Blount’s Cracker President would have “a richer voice, and a less dismissable smile.”31
There was probably more redneck in Jimmy than Blount realized. When speechwriter Bob Shrum resigned from the Carter team in 1976, he exposed a less compassionate candidate. The man who publicly advocated for miners when he spoke before a labor audience told Shrum privately that “he opposed increased black-lung benefits for miners, because ‘they chose to be miners.’” Seemingly lacking an understanding of class conditions, Carter right then revealed a mean streak a mile wide. Should miners suffer because they accepted the dangers of the job? He showed his mean side again in 1977 when he endorsed the Hyde Amendment for restricting Medicare payments to poor women seeking abortions. In answer to a question from Judy Woodruff of NBC, the president did not defend his position on strictly moral grounds, but made a class argument instead: “Well, as you know, there are many things in life that are not fair, that wealthy people can afford and poor people can’t. But I don’t believe that the federal government should take action to try to make these opportunities exactly equal, when there is a moral factor involved.” He basically held that the federal government should be able to deny poor women benefits because they were poor. The wealthy could do as they please, and the poor had to be disciplined. Carter was prone to the fatalistic view: poor women deserve their destiny, and coal miners must endure black-lung disease. In effect, the message was: don’t expect equality or compassion if you can’t help yourself.32
America’s love affair with Jimmy Carter of Plains, Georgia, faded fairly rapidly. By 1979, his declining popularity was summed up in the parable of the swamp rabbit. It was a story the media refused to let go of, in part because the president’s staff refused to release images of the encounter until pressed. Carter told his own tale of the swamp adventure. Paddling a canoe, he saw a wild rabbit chasing his small craft and “baring his teeth.” He thought it was curious, and also funny. Reporters turned it into a modern version of the frontiersman’s vaunted boasting session. Instead of “Daniel Boone wrestling with bears,” one journalist chided, Carter was taking on “Peter Rabbit.” Others had the president sparring with Banzai Bunny, or the killer rabbit of Monty Python fame. It became a metaphor for a wimpy presidential leadership style, feeding the legend of the country boy who turned coward in what should have been familiar terrain—the marshy wilds of the Georgia backcountry. Jimmy Carter was not the hero of Deliverance; he was closer to Jimmy Stewart of Harvey, a feebleminded man unable to prove that the supernatural bunny existed or quash a story that made him look like a country bumpkin.33
In 1980, Carter lost to Ronald Reagan, a man who understood precious little about southern culture, but knew all he needed to about image making. His White House took on the trappings of a glamorous Hollywood set. Reagan could play the Irishman when he visited Ballyporeen, County Tipperary; he could wear a cowboy hat and ride a horse, as he did in one of his best-known films, Santa Fe Trail. The “acting president” had a skill few politicians possessed in that he was trained to deliver moving lines, look good for the camera, and project the desired tone and emotion. Since true eloquence had died with the advent of television, Reagan was less the “great communicator” his worshippers claimed than he was an actor with carefully honed “media reflexes.” He came to office rejecting everything Carter stood for: the rural South, the common man, the image of the down-home American in bare feet and jeans. Reagan looked fantastic in a tuxedo. A rumor made the rounds in 1980 that Nancy Reagan was telling her friends that the Carters had turned the White House into a “pigsty.” In her eyes, they were white trash, and every trace of them had to be erased.34
In a 1980 newspaper piece, one prominent Reagan supporter with strong conservative credentials made a rather dubious argument about rednecks. Patrick Buchanan charged that urban blacks had been lured into the poverty trap by government, and that black men had been shorn of the pride that came from being family providers. His hope was that they might switch their support to Reagan and form a new “Black Silent Majority.” Casting the poor as pawns of the “professional povertarians,” Buchanan revived the old attack against Rexford Tugwell of the New Deal for being the poor man’s puppeteer. The most remarkable of Buchanan’s prescriptions was that urban blacks should see their way to imitating the rednecks whose pickups featured a Reagan bumper sticker and whose sleeves sported the American flag (he should have said Confederate). Putting poor blacks and rednecks in the same boat, Buchanan made bureaucracy the enemy of all.35
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If Jimmy Carter’s election made one of Roy Blount’s friends cry out, “We ain’t trash no more,” that feeling was sadly deflated by 1987. That year’s biggest public scandal was the fall of Reverend Jim Bakker. Rising from obscurity, Bakker and his wife, Tammy Faye, had built a televangelist empire out of the Charlotte, North Carolina, PTL (“Praise the Lord/Pass the Love”) Television Network that was estimated to reach thirteen million homes; they also opened the highly profitable twenty-three-hundred-acre Heritage USA Christian theme park. Along with Liberty University founder Jerry Falwell and Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) founder Pat Robertson, Bakker had joined leading conservative religious leaders who made an appearance at the Reagan White House in 1984. Three years later, after an FBI investigation (in which the PTL was known as the “Pass-the-Loot Club”), he was convicted of all twenty-four charges of fraud and conspiracy. The judge was so disgusted that he sentenced the unscrupulous pastor to forty-five years in prison. In the end, he served a five-year term.36
Bakker was described as a “Bible school dropout,” and his story revealed a man who not only fleeced his followers, but led a grossly extravagant life. He owned numerous homes, a 1953 Rolls-Royce, a sleek houseboat, and closets filled with expensive suits. Jim and Tammy Faye had gone from living in a trailer to amassing salaries and bonuses in the millions of dollars.37
Bakker’s ministry preached the white trash dream of excess. In one 1985 program, he defended the extravagant style of his Christian amusement park hotel: “The newspaper people think we should still be back in the trash… . They really think Christians ought to be shabby, tacky, crummy, worthless people because we threaten them when we have things as nice as they have.” In admitting his overindulgences, Bakker crooned, “I’m excessive. Dear Lord, I’m excessive… . God is a great God. He deserves my best.” The second-rate hustler was a real-life version of Andy Griffith’s role as Lonesome Rhodes in A Face in the Crowd. Or as one reporter claimed after watching untold hours of the Bakkers’ show, their prosperity theology and living-room preaching had “the cheesy feel of Petticoat Junction.”38
Greed was just the backstory. Tammy Faye, who became known for the makeup that oozed down her cheeks as she wept along with her flock, had to be carted off to rehab for an addiction to tranquilizers. Meanwhile, her reverend husband was paying hush money to the church secretary, a young woman he had used sexually seven years earlier. Jessica Hahn told her story to Playboy. And if that kind of exposure was not enough, the same church official who had arranged for Bakker’s motel meeting with Hahn confessed that he had had three separate homosexual encounters with the TV pastor.39
The tabloid exploitation of the Bakker affair may have augured the official birth of “reality TV.” One can directly trace the unholy line from the out-of-control Bakkers to the gawking at rural Georgian white trashdom in TLC’s Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. Both the preacher’s perversions and the underage beauty contestant’s shenanigans tapped into the public’s attachment to the tawdry behavior of the American underclass. (Tammy Faye later starred in the reality show The Surreal Life in 2004.) The people whom the Praise the Lord Ministry conned were mainly poor whites; the majority of the program’s viewers were born-again, with less than a high school education, and were, most pitifully, unemployed. As one staffer revealed, PTL sent out appeals for money on the first of the month, when the Social Security and welfare checks were arriving. Critics of evangelical hypocrisy vented their rage, and one outraged editorialist attacked President Reagan himself for bringing “white trash front and center” when he entertained Bakker and other televangelists at the White House and told Americans they could learn from them about “traditional American values.” The Bakkers appeared on television day and night, “dressed like pimps,” massacring the English language and defiling religion.40
The Bakkers were not even native to the South. Tammy Faye was born into a poor family of eight children in a small rural town in Minnesota, in a house without indoor plumbing. Her parents were Pentecostal preachers. Jim, the son of a machinist, came from Michigan. They relocated to North Carolina because it was where they knew a market existed for their Pentecostal religious message. Tammy Faye was the charismatic heart of the show, singing, crying, and thriving on her gaudy reputation, “à la Liberace,” as one religious scholar has concluded. Her physical appearance projected a class identity: frosted blonde hair, thick makeup, tanned skin, loud, colorful dresses, and trademark fake eyelashes. She was the picture of nouveau riche femininity.41
The “excessive womanliness” of Dolly Parton captured in a stand-up poster of her in a Nashville music store. This photograph appeared in Esquire in 1977.
In this way only, she shared a persona with the Tennessean Dolly Parton. The country singer known for her “voluptuously overflowing body,” garish outfits, big blonde wig—what one scholar has called “excessive womanliness.” Dolly’s grandfather was a Pentecostal preacher. Like Tammy Faye, the singer liked to buy her clothes at the cheaper stores. Her image, as Parton confessed in her autobiography, expressed the desire of poor white trash girls to see themselves as magazine models. She explained, “They didn’t look at all like they had to work in the fields. They didn’t look like they had to take a spit bath in a dishpan. They didn’t look as if men and boys could just put their hands on them any time they felt like it, and with any degree of roughness they chose.” Poverty, for a female, went beyond the wretchedness of having no money.42
Here lies a clue to the real appeal Tammy Faye had among her fans, who vicariously enjoyed the exhibitionism and excess. Parton’s style could be seen as a burlesque—a hooker on the outside and a sweet country girl on the inside; similarly, Tammy Faye’s drag queen look was embraced by the gay community. She was one of very few conservative evangelicals to show sympathy for gay men who were dying of AIDS. She also became for true believers a real-life Christian Cinderella story; one PTL partner made a handcrafted doll of her (marketed for adults, not children) that sold for $675. The Tammy Barbie was a fairy-tale princess with a large heart, adorned, as well, with exaggerated eyelashes.43
The seductive and materialistic message of prosperity theology. Tammy Faye Bakker on the cover of her album Don’t Give Up.
Tammy Faye Bakker, Don’t Give Up (1985)
Yet this fairy tale did not have a happy ending. The media storm made the couple appear completely pathetic; Tammy gained little sympathy as a naïve wife. (Her kookiness probably saved her from indictment.) There was something almost gothic in the exaggerated white trash image of Tammy Faye Bakker. She achieved the American dream not because of her beauty, education, or talent, but because of having fashioned a cable TV personality that refused to partake of the fine manners of her social betters. Tammy Faye was the rejection of everything Pat Loud (of An American Family) and middle-class propriety stood for: emotional restraint, proper diction, subdued dress, and obvious refinement. Nor was she rustic, or the embodiment of old-fashioned yeoman simplicity. She embraced her garish self from head to toe. Her tawdry excess made her beloved among her poor white fans and unredeemable in the eyes of middle America.
The irony is that her white trash “roots” were hardly pure, if not wholly contrived. Her fake eyelashes and thick coat of makeup were part of a strange masquerade, consistent with the renegotiation of class identity that came with the expansion of mass media in the 1980s and 1990s. She said she borrowed her style of eyelashes from Lucille Ball … and Minnie Mouse. “In terms of broadcast hours,” Roger Ebert claimed, “she lived more of her life on live TV than perhaps anyone else in history.” Her public self appeared a composite of bad clichés—she was no closer to projecting authenticity than The Beverly Hillbillies. Tammy Faye was campy (mostly by accident), and more than anything else a creature of the surreal world of television that she loved.44