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A Bumpy Path to the Hill

Former ‘Dukes’ Star and Member Shares His Story

Plenty of politicians sell themselves as the American dream. You know the story: Poor kid from a small town has big goals, works hard to achieve them and then becomes so successful that you should vote him into Congress.

There aren’t too many Members whose life actually fits the storyline perfectly, but former Rep. Ben Jones (D-Ga.) — best known for playing a gritty car mechanic named Cooter Davenport on “The Dukes of Hazzard” — is probably one of the few with a strong case.

“I like to think of myself — I hate to say it about myself but I’ll say it anyway — as a Renaissance person,” Jones said in an interview last week. “But it’s been one hell of a ride.”

Jones’ new memoir, “Redneck Boy in the Promised Land,” shares tales from that ride. The story begins with an impoverished childhood in Portsmouth, Va., and follows Jones through his involvement in the civil rights movement, his years on “Dukes” and his two terms in Congress.

Jones’ account also reveals his personal struggles, including decades battling alcoholism, which often landed him in jail, and an inability to keep relationships intact.

“I was married and divorced three times, went through literally hundreds of relationships,” Jones said. “But at the same time, I was a working actor. … I really had a lot of success, but I was my own worst enemy.”

As much as Jones’ personal history is a cautionary tale (he almost died from alcohol poisoning at 36), it is also one of tremendous achievement, and he tells it with a lot of humor. There are plenty of juicy little details for “Dukes” fans (Tae-Bo founder Billy Blanks was Catherine ‘Daisy Duke’ Bach’s bodyguard, for example). But that is accompanied with insights into just how Jones became a Member and what happened when he got to Congress.

Jones’ foray into Congressional politics started in 1986, when he was urged by Democratic Party officials to challenge Republican Rep. Pat Swindall for Georgia’s 4th district seat. It wasn’t an easy task; the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee pretty much wrote the race off, and most folks looked at Jones’ candidacy with curiosity, not any notion he could actually pull it off.

But Jones’ prominence and natural political charisma (combined with evidence that Swindall had made some shady financial deals) made things close — Jones lost the race in a tight 52 percent to 48 percent vote. That was enough to give people confidence that he had a legitimate chance the next cycle.

And that’s when the gloves came off.

Swindall labeled Jones a dishonest criminal (citing his drunken nights spent in jail) and even hired a detective to look into his past. Of course, Swindall was being investigated by the FBI at the time for money laundering — the whole thing tied to narcotics, no less — which gave Jones plenty of ammunition to fire back.

“The Washington Post and others said it was the meanest race in the country,” Jones said. “I think Dan Rather said that. It was just tough, hard-fought. He needed to make it about my past, and there was plenty of material to work with.”

Jones still went on to win the seat in 1988 and was re-elected in 1990. He arrived in office during an extraordinary time; the Berlin Wall fell during his first term, and his tenure also spanned the first Gulf War. Jones spent some of his years in office traveling the world, even creating a mini-controversy during a trip to China.

While visiting Tiananmen Square, Jones unveiled a banner reading: “To Those Who Died for Democracy In China” in honor of the protest there a few years earlier. Chinese soldiers stepped in with batons to break up Jones’ tribute, and some journalists on the scene got injured in the chaos.

“That night, at a formal dinner with the Chinese foreign minister, the air was as chilly as the iced lobster,” Jones writes. “But our American ambassador had a very, very slight grin that he couldn’t disguise.”

Jones lost his re-election bid in 1992, in part to a redistricting effort led by then-Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). So in 1994, Jones attempted to “Neuter the Newtster” and ran for his seat, which was probably a bad idea since Gingrich had put together the Republican revolution that year.

Still, Jones managed to make the race interesting, traveling with two bloodhounds charged with finding Gingrich (a tactic used to point out that the future Speaker refused to debate). But Jones also took more serious measures, filing a formal complaint against Gingrich with the House ethics committee. The complaint accused Gingrich of teaching a college course as a way to further his political agenda.

Jones said that looking back over his years in office, he is most proud of “the nuts and bolts stuff, the stuff we did for constituents,” alongside efforts to help Vietnam veterans. Today, he worries about the “amount of power of special interest in politics … how difficult it is to reform a system that is somewhat off track.”

“At the same time, my impression of it is that the Members are so hardworking. It’s very difficult work,” he added. “I think of it as a grand experience for me. For me, it was kind of like graduate school. … I learned a lot, and I treasure those memories.”

These days, Jones has pretty much left politics behind him, although he did challenge Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) in 2002, and he makes occasional appearances on the cable news shows. He’s happily married to his fourth wife, Alma, and has been sober for about 30 years.

And despite those years as a Congressman, Jones is happy to be remembered most as good ol’ cousin Cooter.

“I have a great appreciation for Cooter, for that character, for that show and for the fun that it not only has brought but continues to bring to people all over the world,” he said. “I still am having fun with it. I never get tired of doing it.”

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