Richard Nixon’s presidency was marked by a legendarily thick air of paranoia. Dick feared the Democrats—sure, but he also feared Jews, intellectuals, black people, Mexicans and a lot of run-of-the-mill, unremarkable whites, too. In fact, Nixon’s adviser Murray Chotiner (ironically, a Jew and former Democrat), felt that Johnny Cash might upset the Republican masterplan, and hoped Nixon would set him straight at a White House event.
The fear was that Cash would carry water for Tex Ritter, a colleague and country music legend who was then running for Tennessee’s Senate Republican primary. Predictably, Cash never actually endorsed Ritter, who eventually lost by a landslide. Two years later, Johnny would visit Nixon again to discuss prison reform. The story goes that Nixon requested “Okie from Muskogee,” a Merle Haggard song satirizing reactionary “good ole boys” that Nixon most likely went over Nixon’s head. It’s said that Cash snidely responded by playing a decidedly bleeding heart, anti-war set of “What Is Truth?” “The Man in Black,” and “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.”
I’d argue that Johnny Cash is a complex and powerful figure, and that it’s tempting to ascribe political dissidence to a man who was ultimately kind of a simple guy with a few very meaningful pet projects. Regardless, it’s fun to contemplate Nixon being concerned about Johnny Cash being a potential thorn in his side, even if the threat was only imagined. You can see footage and hear clips of the 1972 visit below, from the Nixon tapes. June even says that they’re praying for him.