Ben “Cooter” Jones:
former U.S. Rep. from Georgia
and now an author

Photo: Cooter’s Place

In May of 2006, I was privately asked by a prominent U.S. Senator what the Democrats could do to “educate” people in rural America who are “so ignorant” that they vote “against their own economic interests” and vote Republican in national elections. It should not come as a surprise to anybody on this site that the Senator (who is a good person, just “ignorant” of the rural ground) was hardly the first urban Democrat to ask me that question, but it got my hair up just the same. I feel certain my answer could have been more respectful: “It’s this simple. Go visit the ignorant bastards, show a little more tolerance for their culture, tell them what you’re going to do, and then ask for their vote.”

If Obama intends to rally support in rural America, he should read former Georgia Congressman and Dukes of Hazzard actor Ben “Cooter” Jones’ new book, Redneck Boy in the Promised Land: The Confessions of Crazy Cooter. There are two reasons. Number two is that Obama is guaranteed to get more than one belly laugh (at this point in this hellishly long and intense campaign, I’m sure a little humor would have to help), and number one, he could get an unobstructed view of the true culture—not the stereotypical version— through the good times and the bad times in the life of one of rural America’s treasures.

Cooter gives a picture-perfect, nostalgic look at the last half-century in the South. He touches on everything from the old Saturday matinees (Cooter: “I was an Autry man myself. To me, Gene was a lot like Jesus, except Gene would kick your ass if he had to.”), to his childhood fantasies of being Stan “The Man” Musial (“My years with the Cardinals were good ones. They retired my number when I was ten years old.”), to his very, very dangerous days as a civil rights activist while attending the University of North Carolina (“I understood the dangers better than most because I was no “˜wild-eyed’ outside agitator from up North but a ‘redneck’ Southern boy raised in the strict segregation of the times. But now I had come to believe that no American should be denied a hamburger in a public place because of the way that the Good Lord designed him”).

From his years as a child in section housing and all along the path to his ascendance as a rural icon, Cooter writes his story in the most compelling style ever known. That style is called speaking from the heart.

For anybody whose life, or a family member’s life, has been ravaged by alcoholism and drug addiction, Cooter’s vivid account of his battle with alcoholism and drugs reinforces the power of hope and faith that is so prevalent in our culture. Cooter’s story is not a tale “of falling down but of getting up.” And for those of us who have battled those forces, he gives a sterling reminder of the insidious nature of addiction in the section “Way Down Drunk in Dixie.” (Cooter: “My friend Jeff Foxworthy, the Southern humorist, has a line that goes: “˜You might be a redneck if you have ever been too drunk to fish.’ I have been too drunk to fish. I have been too drunk to drive. I have been too drunk to make love, and too drunk to fight. I have been too drunk to walk, and I have been too drunk to get up off the floor. But I was never, ever too drunk to drink.”

cooter autograph
Picture of the Capitol that former U.S. Rep. Ben “Cooter” Jones signed at an auto show
Photo: Dear Mr. Kelsey

Cooter’s section on his campaigning and election to Congress, “The Most Unlikely Candidate,” is a front-row seat to much of the senseless crap that really goes on in day-to-day campaigning. His candor (as a candidate and a Congressman) is a lung-full — not a breath — of fresh air. In every campaign, Cooter was under constant “lack of values” barrages for his pre-recovery life. Of course, “lack of values” attacks on Democrats were the order of the Newt Gingrich GOPAC days of the early ’90s, and Cooter appeared to be an easy target for the Republicans. Wrong.

“One Republican businessman snapped to me that (John) Linder had some surprises for me. “˜I understand that we have got a lot of stuff on you,’ he smirked. “˜You don’t have nearly as much stuff on me as I’ve got on myself.’ He just stood there, slack-jawed and dumb-founded. Nobody had ever said anything like that to him before. For all I know he is still standing there.”

And in those days of “I didn’t inhale,” there was also the marijuana-use question. Cooter: “I experimented with it twice. Once from 1957 until 1961 and once from 1963 until 1978.” The last of Cooter’s days in Washington will go down as one of the great ironies in Congressional political history. After being redistricted into a heavily-performing Republican district following the 1990 census, Cooter was eventually defeated by Gingrich himself. The irony is that GOPAC’s illegal fund-raising, brought to light by Cooter during the campaign, resulted in Gingrich’s retirement. In a nutshell, the political section of this book is simply outstanding.

If you are from the culture, you should read Redneck Boy in the Promised Land. Not only will you be spouting Cooter’s one liners to your pals, but if you’re like me, it will make you damned proud of who you are. And if you are not from our culture and have been wondering why it’s so powerful at the ballot box, then you need to read this. Honestly, I think you’ll gain some understanding. Like I said, Obama should read Cooter’s book.

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