National Press Club

Toby Keith Waves the Flag, Praises the USO, Disses the Press

April 22, 2009 | By Richard Lee

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Hours before he embarked on his eighth USO-sponsored tour of Iraq and Afghanistan, country-western singer-songwriter Toby Keith told stories, waved the flag and railed against the news media at a luncheon Tuesday.

Keith, named by Forbes magazine as the nation’s highest-earning county music star with a restaurant franchise, lucrative product endorsements and million-seller hits that include “Should Have Been A Cowboy,” “American Soldier,” and “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue,” appeared as a good ol’ boy from Oklahoma in his Army-issue combat fatigues and black cap with black shades on the brim.

It was his idea to have chicken-fried steak as the entrée -- a Press Club first, he noted. But he wasn’t that happy about the green beans that came with it.

“They just can’t quite get it, can they?”

He also donated one of his guitars, which will be sold during the Club's 5K run/walk auction to raise money for scholarships.

Keith wouldn’t sing even a few notes of one of his songs—“Naw, I don’t want to sing today, we’re on CNN” he protested—but he had plenty to say in 15 minutes of remarks and in response to questions.

About his politics, “I’m not a political guy,” he said. “I never have been. It really freaks people out when they find out that I’m a Democrat. It really does, because they’ve read so much lies and stuff in the press that they just assume that I’m a right-wing loco, you know? It’s simply not true. My father was a veteran who was injured during his service and came back a proud veteran. He taught his children at an early age to respect veterans and people who are willing to -- or even that were drafted. You can’t just say ‘willing.’

“My lefty friends think I’m a Nazi, and my righty friends think I’m a hippie. Anybody that knows me personally knows I’m just a normal guy that goes out and fishes, raises racehorses, raises his kids,” he said. “I dedicate two weeks every year to the USO, which is, contrary to what you hear on the news sometimes, they’re the best organization. They’ve been doing it longer than anybody, and they provide more for anybody than just entertainment. They send every kind of care package in the world to our guys on the frontline.

“Some people in the news media last year were saying that the USO wasn’t doing their job,” he continued. “The reason that USO can’t get more people to go there is because it’s a hell zone. It’s a war zone. It’s hard to convince anybody who’s making movies or making recordings to stop what they’re doing here in Disneyland and go sit in the middle of a war zone, you know? I never shot anybody, but I’ve been shot at, several times. I’ve raced other Marines and soldiers to a bunker when the sirens go off. I mean, I know how it feels in my little world, my little 14 days that I’m over there. But can you imagine being over there 18 months? It’s a long time to live on the edge.

“There’s been some hatemongers reporting that I get paid to go over there,” he went on. “I’ve never made one red cent. There are people that go and shoot TV shows over there in the Green Zone, get paid a half a million or a million, come back and show that they’ve been in the military zone. I get very little press from it. I don’t go out, promote it. That’s why not very many people know I’ve done 100 shows over there. And by the time we get back, it will be well over 125 or something. But never one time have I taken one penny.”

What he sees as most unfair about the media today is “everybody’s selling headlines. Half the time when you read the story, it never matches up to the magnitude of what the headline is that drew you in in the beginning anyway. So if somebody prints a headline about me and slams me, and the retraction comes later, it’ll be back on page 45.

“I have so many disagreements with the extreme right,” Keith said. “There’s great Democrats. There’s great Republicans. There’s great independent Americans in this country that all get along and can argue and disagree and agree over issues. But these extreme ends seem to create all the noise. They’re poison. And that is what needs to come to a stop. And I don’t know how, with the Internet the way it is today. I don’t know how, with everybody competing, there’s just not one or two places we go to get our trusted news anymore.”

Keith said he's not interested in running for political office, including governor of Oklahoma: “I’m not political, so I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t deal with all the lies. I couldn’t shake your hand and walk over there, five feet, and say something bad about you."

He knows his “Red, White and Blue” song, written soon after 9/11, gave him a super-patriot image, and he’s proud of it: “It tells you in there, word for word. We got sucker punched that day. And, you know, these guys are coming in to serve justice on you. You will be found, and you will not do this to our country again.”

As for his career, “ I don’t have any goals in the music business left to accomplish,” he said. “I was black-balled by the awards shows years ago. I don’t live in Nashville. So, again, I’m not political. And that’s what you’ve got to be. I don’t shake hands well with people that don’t like me. I’ve got every songwriting award, every quadruple, you know, platinum albums, all that stuff, number one ticket seller. I’ve done everything in the music business I can do. So the only goal you have left at this point is to keep -- I enjoy writing songs, so you just keep going, just seeing how long you can compete. You get another newcomer every year that wants to knock you off your perch. But you gotta come get it. I ain’t givin’ it to you. You gotta come get it, baby.”