En Route to Congress, Actor Ben Jones First Beat the Bottle, Then the Incumbent
Margie Bonnett Sellinger
01/30/1989 at 01:00 AM EST
Ben Jones had bought two six-packs of beer and was about to begin his nightly ritual, downing them at one sitting. But after 20 years of hard drinking and three ruined marriages, the bottle had finally lost its luster for the down-and-out Georgia actor. "I had hit bottom," says Jones of that night, Sept. 25,1977. "I was broke. The rent was due. The electricity was cut off, and I had the shakes. My face was incredibly puffy. I didn't want to live and I didn't want to die."
Eleven years later Jones's decision to dry out and reaudition for the company of the living has culminated in his best role yet. On Jan. 3, as his wife, Vivian, 36, his daughter, Rachel, 18, and his mother, Ila, 70, looked on, Jones, 47, stood in the House of Representatives on Capitol Hill and swore to support and defend the Constitution as a United States Congressman. Perched on his father's arm, Jones's 5-year-old son, Walker, took the oath right along with his dad.
Jones readily concedes that name recognition from his years as the friendly auto mechanic Cooter on TV's The Dukes of Hazzard helped him win. But voters in Georgia's largely suburban Fourth District have also come to know Jones as a politician who isn't afraid of a fight. The Washington Post described his contest last fall with two-term Republican incumbent Rep. Pat Swindall as "perhaps the nastiest, most personal congressional campaign in the country." Swindall faced perjury indictments for allegedly lying to a federal grand jury about his involvement in an IRS investigation of drug money laundering. Jones claims that Swindall sought to downplay his own troubles by turning the glare of publicity on Jones's alcoholic past. Says Atlanta pollster Claibourne Darden: "I had a fellow come up to me and ask, 'How's that race between a drunk and a crook coming?' That sums it up in the minds of a number of people."
Jones makes no bones about the fact that he has "more skeletons in my closet than the Smithsonian Institution." He began drinking at 16, and his boozing led to at least 10 arrests, on charges ranging from criminal trespass to simple battery against a former wife. The son of a railroad worker, Jones grew up in a dockside railroad yard in Portsmouth, Va., in a house with no electricity or plumbing. "I was the last of that generation who saw the lights come on," he says. "When we got electricity it was blinding."
Jones worked odd jobs for a while after high school and eventually made his way to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He never graduated, but his time at college did put him onstage. "I took one acting class and got a C," he says. "I just learned by doing it," accepting any part in any production he could find. Jones married his first wife in 1964. After three years his boozing and brawling led to divorce. He and his second wife wed in 1969 and Rachel, now an Amherst College freshman, was born the next year. That marriage ended in 1973. Jones took a third trip to the altar in 1976, but that union dissolved as well.
Despite his troubles, Jones kept working, appearing in The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings and Smokey and the Bandit—but he had pitifully little to show for his success. "I was making money but spending it as fast as I could get a hold of it, just drinking it up," says Jones. "I was sick—physically and mentally sick and spiritually dead." That changed after a friend took him to Alcoholics Anonymous. About a year after going on the wagon, he became a regular on The Dukes of Hazzard, starring John Schneider, Tom Wopat and a much-abused car called the General Lee. The show ran for seven seasons, earning Jones upward of $200,000 a year and providing him a measure of fame. He also met TV commercial producer Vivian Walker. They've been married for nearly a decade now. "I started a happy, healthy family, rediscovered Christianity and found a new strength," says Jones. "That was remarkable."
He and Vivian shared an interest in politics and spent time working on Jimmy Carter's 1980 presidential campaign. The Dukes folded after the 1984-85 season, mostly because, as Jones puts it, "there are only so many ways you can wreck an automobile." In 1986 Georgia Democratic leaders encouraged Jones to run against Swindall. At first he demurred. "I'm not your typical political candidate," he remembers protesting. "I've seen the inside of jails." Even so, Jones got the Democratic nomination and lost a squeaker to Swindall. In the rematch last fall, Jones won hands down, taking 60 percent of the vote.
Meaning no disrespect to Cooter, the onetime actor points out that he didn't make it to Congress totally on the character's coattails. The fame from the role, he says, "is an asset in that it opened doors. But once the doors were opened, I had to exhibit a certain substance and depth." Though he calls himself a "progressive independent," Jones's positions put him in the Democratic mainstream: He's pro-choice on abortion, opposed to Star Wars deployment and is taking a wait-and-see attitude on higher taxes to shrink the national deficit.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that there are "no second acts in American lives," but Jones believes otherwise. "Only in America could you get any chance like this," he says, staring up at the Capitol building. "For me to be here is a remarkable situation."
—Montgomery Brower, and Margie Bonnett Sellinger in Washington