Reprinted from yesterday's late edition
Through the South Portico of the White House marched Rosalynn Carter, carrying the pale green flag used by starters at stock car races.She whipped the flag down, there was a roar of motors from across the lawn sounding like a flotilla of bombers, and Wednesday night's party was on.
Four stock cars revved up their motors and drove (more slowly than usual) around the circular driveway, coming to a stop in front of the building. The drivers wriggled out through the windows (frills like doors are eliminated in the starkly utilitarian models that whip around the track at Daytona) and ambled off to join the fun at Jimmy Carter's absentee reception for NASCAR (The National Association for Stock Car Racing).
There were 15 flags spread out at the entrance to the White House South Lawn - not the American and foreign flags that fly on state occasions, but the special signal flags of auto racing - a black one with a white cross meaning "you are disqualified," a white one meaning "one more lap" and the black-and-white checkered flag that is given to the winner.
Painted on the side of the cars, next to the driver's seat, were four names magic in racing: Cale Yarborough, David Pearson, Benny Parson and Bobby Allison. The biggest star of them all, "King" Richard Petty, did not have a car in the linequp because he has recently shifted brands and Chevrolet was already represented.
"A bunch of old race cars circled in the driveway of the White House," mused driver Donnie Allison. "That's what America is all about."
It was stock car night at the White House, but it was also outlaw night. The star outlaw was Willie Nelson. Austin's answer to Nashville, which had its night at the White House earlier this year. Among those in the audience was a living legend, Junior Johnson, former bootlegger, former driver and now the wealthy owner of several cars raced by other big names.
Johnson, the patriarch of the sport, reflected on the twisted course his career has followed from bootlegging to three-piece suits and the White House lawn. "They've cleaned us up a whole lot, I guess," he said. "There's just a few of us old-timers left now, like the cowboys and Indians. It's getting sort of sophisticated-like. I guess the West has been won."
Asked whether he had in fact begun as a bootlegger, he said, "I'm afraid I did," looking not at all afraid. "That's how we made our money. It was a hard time to be making a living.
"Now we represent the world's largest companies," said the man who has been compared to Jesse James.
"I guess tonight shows that the Carters haven't forgotten where they came from," said Rep. Wyche Fowler (D-Ga.), summing up the feelings of most of the crowd. Not looking at all out of place among the outlaws, first brother Billy Carter was asked by a reporter whether he felt comfortable at the White House. "Yes," he said for publication, then turned to a friend and whispered, "S---, no!"
Although he posed willingly for photographs, some discomfort was evident in the restless way he wandered around during the concert, seeming to disappear for long periods before Willie Nelson invited him up for the final chorus of "Irene, Goodnight:" Billy - Billy Carter, where you at?" He made it to the stage for the finale, but was beaten by his wife, Sybil, who sang one chorus in duet with Nelson.
In her introduction and again at the end of the concert, Rosalynn Carter emphasized how much her husband had wanted to be there. "It would take something of the magnitude of the Camp David summit to keep him away," she said. Later, wishing her guests goodnight, she asked them to "continue to pray tonight for Jimmy, for Prime Minister Begin and for President Sadat."
Billy denied that he was pinchhitting for his brother, who was kept away at Camp David. Rosalynn Carter, appearing more relaxed than she usually is at White House parties, acted as the hostess.At the end of the evening, when a good part of the audience was dancing on the lawn, she joined in, holding the hands of two friends.
Another dancer was Nan Powell, who said that her husband Jody, bereft at missing the concert, had called to say: "Ask Willie to sing 'Hello, Walls' for me and for all of us at Camp David. And if we're not home by next week, tell him to sing, 'Whiskey River, take my mind.'"
Most television biggies were up at Camp David, but CBS' Roger Mudd knew where the action was and showed up on the South Lawn. "Maybe we should keep Carter, Begin and Sadat up there for three or four years, and they can vote absentee," he quipped.
William France, founder of NASCAR, said he came because he "got an invitation. I didn't vote for Jimmy Carter in the last election, but my two sons did. Frankly, I've always been a (George) Wallace man. If he hadn't been shot, I think we would have been here four years earlier. But Carter has always been a friend of motor sports."
As for Willie Nelson, he said, "Marty Robbins has always been my favorite country singer."
But it was clearly Willie Nelson's night. He came onstage resplendent in a red Adidas T-shirt, jeans and running shoes, a red bandana holding his shoulder-length, squeaky-clean hair in place ("I wonder if he blowdries it," gushed one fan).
"This is real interesting," Nelson mused looking out at the audience sitting at rustic picnic tables with black-and-white checkered tablecloths. "I see a lot of people here that I don't usually see at my concerts."
Asked if he thought Carter might be looking for an identification with his fans. Nelson said, "I hope so, but I don't think that's the reason I'm here. No, ma'm, tonight's something special."
The something special was a political promise Jimmy Carter had made in the opening days of his campaign for the presidential nomination. At the Atlanta Speedway, where he had occasionally sold tickets when he was a humble peanut farmer, Carter launched his race by waving a starter's flag and promised that he would invite the racing people to the White House if he were elected. He kept that promise spectacularly Wednesday night.
If Carter brought in the racing people, it was reportedly Frank Moore, head of congressional liaison, who brought in Willie Nelson. Moore, who acted as Rosalynn Carter's escort, modestly gave all the credit to his boss. "It was the president's idea," he said. "He and I share a love for Willie's music."
Another Nelson fan on the premises was Sybil Carter, wife of Billy, who was for once doing more talking than her husband, "Willie's one of our all-time favorites, but tonight was the first time we met him," she said. It was also the first night they had been at the White House since February, 1977. The long absence was "all because we have six children," she said. "It's not because we didn't want to come here."
The occasion was emphatically informal, with garb that ranged from three-piece polyster suits to cowboy hats, blue jeans and leather vests.
On the tables, where nearly 500 guests dined on roast beef, baked ham, corn bread, potato salad, bean salad, carrot cake and strawberry shortcake, unusual centerpieces showed miniature stock cars racing on plastic strips. Three small candles at each table helped illuminate the night scene, along the stage lights, torches around the outer edges of the lawn, and the nearly full moon.
Some souvenir-hunters took small cars with them as the party was ending, and some of the more enterprising ones took whole centerpieces. The White House guard let them pass, carrying the bulky objects, without challenge, but there were objections when the tablecloths began to disappear.
"I'm sorry, but we have to use those again next week," one apologetic attendant told a collector who was picking up a tablecloth. Others escaped unobserved.
The general atmosphere was festive but sober. While Willie Nelson was singing, "Whiskey River, don't run dry," the guests were satisfying themselves with beer and white wine.
During the concert, many of the racing drivers wandered into the White House to have their pictures taken under the portrait of Andrew Jackson, who was famous for some wild parties at the White House in his own time. "There has been nothing like this here since Andrew Jackson," said one guest with slight inaccuracy - there were no electric guitars in the Jackson administration.
Among the alcoholic references which abounded in Nelson's material was the name of Lone' Star Beer, which Nelson amended to "Billy Beer" for the occasion. Some references to the president's brother among people in the audience were less enthusiastic.
"People are not crazy about Billy being here," said one racetrack owner. "He's no longer what you call a distinguished-type person of renown."
There was more enthusiasm for the three balloonists who recently crossed the Atlantic. Maxie Anderson, Ben Abruzzo and Larry Newman, when Rosalynn Carter called them up on the stage to be introduced. The audience, composed of daredevils and daredevil-admirers, applauded warmly.
About his historic flight, Larry Newman remarked: "The only strange thing that happened was that we kept seeing this Teddy Kennedy trial balloon floating past us."
Chip Carter, the president's son, played advance man for Nelson, leading him onstage and trying to escort him off afterwards. But Nelson was besieged by autograph-seekers and hundreds of Instamatics, to which he yielded with good grace.
Had the night lived up to his expectations? "Well, it's just about what ah wanted," he drawled. Chip Carter, trying vainly to get him off the stage, urged, "Come on, Willie, too many beautiful women are going to ruin your complexion . . . Overexposure is bad for the soul."
Turning to one of the fans besieging the stage, he laughed, "God, it's hell being a star."