Karma for Eric Cantor: Ben “Cooter” Jones on the open letter that helped crush a “political hack”

The "Dukes of Hazzard" star and former politician tells Salon how he feels about his former opponent's defeat

Topics: Ben Jones, Dukes of Hazzard, Cooter, Eric Cantor, David Brat, Dave Brat, Tea Party, Ayn Rand, Von Mises, Buckley, Election 2014, , , ,

Karma for Eric Cantor: Ben "Cooter" Jones on the open letter that helped crush a "political hack"Ben Jones (Credit: AP/Steve Helber)

When outgoing House Majority Leader Eric Cantor defeated former “Dukes of Hazzard” star and Georgia congressman Ben Jones in a 2002 race to represent Virginia  in Congress, he probably thought that was that, just another dispatched foe along Cantor’s quest to eventually become the speaker of the House.

Fast-forward 10-plus years later, and it looks like “Cooter” is having the last laugh. Days before Cantor suffered a shocking, unprecedented defeat in a primary race against a little-known college professor, Jones penned an open letter to Democrats, and other opponents of Cantor in the district, to take advantage of Virginia’s open primary rules and cross party lines to support David Brat, Cantor’s now-victorious foe. And while reasonable observers may question whether such strategizing really made a difference to the ultimate outcome — Cantor did lose by double-digits, after all — it’s worth noting that Cantor’s pollster, at the very least, thinks Brat’s cross-over support made a real difference.

Early Wednesday morning, Salon called up Jones to get his reaction to Cantor’s defeat and the role his letter may have played in bringing it about. Jones spoke of Cantor’s history of nastiness, the broad coalition that aligned to oppose him, how his defeat represents a victory for the political middle, and just why it is that schadenfreude in the morning tastes so sweet. The juiciest bits of our conversation are below, and have been edited for clarity and length.

Jones on the first thing he saw after getting out of bed this morning:

I woke up and came outside …  I’ve got a little office in a little place called the Briar Patch where I hide out. I just write on the walls — phone numbers, and quotations and things. The first thing that I saw after I got out of the bed was this thing I had written on the wall that said: “Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid.”

On why Cantor lost:

Eric was beaten by a coalition [of] mostly real conservatives. These weren’t Tea Party wackos that we hear about, these were thoughtful, sober, classic conservatives, like William F. Buckley and Edmund Burke and all those people. They know their stuff, and they saw Cantor as just an extremely ambitious hack, who over the years has just swelled-up with hubris. So a lot of people said, “Well, the only chance we have to bring him down is right here, right now.” [Brat] is a very honorable guy. He’s a very serious guy. He’s a classical conservative, all the Hayek and Von Mises and all that stuff. He’s not a wheeler-dealer. He’s an intellect. Eric Cantor’s not an intellect. Eric Cantor is a political hack, frankly. A very ambitious one, but nevertheless. He doesn’t have the substance that Brat has.

On why Cantor’s loss was so richly deserved:

If I made a difference, I’m very pleased with that. As they say — well, “they” don’t say it around here but I kind of made it up — “There ain’t no freud like schadenfreude!” And I don’t go around just [mimics  vindictive laughter] ‘I’ll show them!’ But [Cantor] insulted me. He mocked me, Cantor did. He knew I didn’t have money; I don’t take PAC money … I spent about what Dave Brat did against him. And [Cantor] didn’t have to [mock me]. It’s the way they play. And they played that way against a Republican, and a good guy, before they had to … [Cantor] frankly has run some of the sleaziest campaigns when he didn’t have to … Cantor’s pollster says I made the difference, and if people want to think that, of course that’s fine with me. What goes around comes around. He ran one of the nastiest campaigns against me that I’ve ever [seen]. I’ve run against some tough guys; I ran against Gingrich.

On why he decided to write that open letter: 

I had thought about that for a while, and [thought], If I’m gonna do this — don’t know if it will make a difference or not — I’ll sleep better if I send this letter because if Cantor wins I’d say, “I should have sent that letter.” So I sent the letter … And I said, “Well, it’s like Cooter, the character I played on television used to say (and I made this up too): “I might be crazy, but I ain’t dumb.” So, it was a crazy idea — but not really. Sort of makes perfect sense … [T]he credit belongs to a lot of people. I was just one player.

On the larger significance of Cantor’s defeat:

This is a gigantic political upset, and it’s about a lot more than Democrats crossing over and helping, although that’s a component of it. There was a deeper dynamic, that the national media did not pick up, that the Republican Party didn’t pick up, that the Democratic Party didn’t pick it up — and it is about the fact that we’re sick and tired not just of the Republicans in Congress but the Democrats in Congress, too. They’re not out here working in the coal mines and factories and waiting on tables. They’re out of touch, they are. And Eric Cantor was “Exhibit A” for out-of-touchness … [T]his was a message about people who just are incredibly frustrated with the hardened positions of power. There’s no room for creative thinking. There’s no room for disagreement. There’s no room in the middle. [The] Democratic Party is a coalition of interests on the left, and it is rapidly going further to the left, and to this politically correct, don’t offend anybody, let’s all be real sensitive [approach]. I mean, it’s crazy! And Republicans, obviously, are going further to the right, and being bankrolled by the Koch brothers and all that stuff … And us folks in the middle, [the] “great unwashed” out here, we don’t really have a lot of choices … We’re stuck with two choices and we vote for the least-obnoxious one … And this [was] a chance for all these people, this [was] a chance to empower us.

On the message Cantor’s defeat sends to the rest of Congress:

In these gerrymandered districts, these safe seats are no longer safe. These safe seats are no longer safe, because we can go into these primaries, or these open primaries, and we can cross over and knock out incumbents, and knock out the person with the safe seat. And that’s exactly what happened. That was the safest seat in the country, that was a safe seat. But it wasn’t, because they didn’t know what the hell was going on on the ground. They weren’t talking to people … This is a template that can be applied in other places. And it’s not only that — it brings people together. Look at this terrible divide, people at each other’s throats, there’s no middle ground, no civility, no comity; but we can sit together in the cafes and talk, sit around the pool hall, talk to each other. This is a very positive thing, not just because of the schadenfreude and knocking off Eric Cantor and taking him down, but [because] it was done by people whose common interest was, “Let’s get rid of this crowd.” So nobody’s seat is safe, if it’s worked right.

Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a staff writer at Salon, focusing on politics. Follow him on Twitter at @eliasisquith, and email him at eisquith@salon.com.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows


Loading Comments...