A Brief History of Billy Beer

Peter Keegan, Keystone/Getty Images
Peter Keegan, Keystone/Getty Images

When the national press descended on Plains, GA, during the 1976 presidential campaign, the journalists were looking for some insight into Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter’s character. They found something even better: Carter’s hard-drinking younger brother, gas station owner Billy.

The media quickly fell in love with the bespectacled, beer-chugging younger Carter. Billy’s Southern-fried buffoon character and over-the-top friendliness provided the perfect counterpoint to his brother’s earnest demeanor, and his wit kept the press stocked with sound bites like, “I got a red neck, white socks, and Blue Ribbon beer."

In 1979, the Associated Press described Billy as a “professional redneck,” and that’s a pretty accurate assessment of Billy’s activities in the early years of his brother’s presidency. He basically traveled the country drinking beer, making event appearances, and cashing checks. His most notable project, though, has to be the beer that bore his name.

The Birth of Billy Beer

billy beer

cactuscans, Ebay

As Billy Carter’s odd, beer-swilling star was rising, the venerable Falls City Brewing Company’s fortunes were fading. Louisville-based Falls City had enjoyed a good deal of success as a regional brewer since its 1905 founding, and the company even managed to prosper during Prohibition by making near beer and soft drinks. By 1977, though, the small brewer was having trouble competing with national brands, and its most recent attempt to win back some market share, a light-bodied beer called Drummond Bros., hadn’t buoyed the company’s prospects much.

Falls City didn’t want to simply fade into oblivion, so in 1977 the company approached the country’s most visible drunken redneck about forming a partnership. Never one to turn down free beer or an easy buck, Billy agreed to market his own brand of beer.

The exact terms of the partnership weren't clear, but various sources reported that Carter received $50,000 a year to license his name and provide promotional services. Billy also got to pick the beer; Falls City brewed up a set of test batches and let him choose the one he thought was the tastiest. Carter had high expectations for the project and even joked, “Maybe I'll become the Colonel Sanders of beer.”

It seems funny now that Billy Beer is an infamous failed brand, but Falls City had a major problem to address before it started making Billy Beer. The brewers correctly surmised that a beer endorsed by the President’s black-sheep brother would become a national sensation, and it would be impossible for a regional brewery like Falls City to meet so much demand. To sidestep this problem, Falls City licensed the Billy Beer brand and formula to three other regional breweries: Minnesota’s Cold Spring, Texas’ Pearl Brewing, and New York’s West End. Billy Beer was set to get the entire nation quotably tipsy.

Billy-mania Begins

Billy Beer drew an enviable amount of national attention when it debuted in November 1977, and Jimmy Carter’s supporters and detractors alike rushed out to buy a six-pack of the novelty cans. The 12-packs even came emblazoned with a photo of Billy and his buddies enjoying frosty cans of the brew. Each can – the only format in which the beer was offered – bore Billy’s signature and the promise “I had this beer brewed just for me. It’s the best beer I’ve ever tasted. And I’ve tasted a lot.”

This revelation might shock you, but Billy Carter – the same Billy who later registered as a foreign agent of the Libyan government and accepted a six-figure “loan” from Colonel Gaddafi – wasn’t being entirely honest about his beer’s smooth taste. Most contemporary drinkers felt it was apparent that Falls City had put more thought into the marketing plan than the brew itself, and even Billy would later jokingly describe Billy Beer as the reason he quit drinking.

Of course, even if the beer had been nectar, the brand had another major hurdle to clear: Billy Carter. Hiring a highly quotable, frequently drunk attention hound turned out to be a questionable decision for Falls City. Billy had a habit of attending promotional events for his beer and parroting the company line about how delicious he thought it was, only to later get sloshed and admit to reporters that he still drank Pabst Blue Ribbon at home. That’s about the best summary of Billy Beer that we can find; it was so noxious that not even Billy Carter would drink it.

Falls City had survived Prohibition, but it couldn’t survive Billy Beer. The brewers quickly learned that it’s hard to make a lasting profit on a product that tastes so bad nobody wants to buy it a second time. In October 1978, Falls City announced that it was closing its doors after less than a year of cranking out the first brother’s suds. The brewery’s president said that the fortunes of Billy Beer "sank with the popularity of the President," but many media sources, including Time, pinpointed the beer’s crummy quality as the true reason for its downfall.

Wisconsin’s G. Heileman Brewing Company acquired Falls City’s non-Billy brands and continued to bottle them at other breweries. Reynolds Metals bought 9 million unfilled Billy Beer cans and melted them down, and Billy Carter left the beer industry.

Billy Hits the Secondary Market

Jimmy Carter and Billy Carter
US National Archives bot, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This unceremonious death should have been the end of Billy Beer, but the short-lived fad caught a second wind in the early '80s. What caused Billy’s resurgence? Americans became thoroughly convinced that their unopened cans were 12-ounce gold mines.

At some point in 1981, classified ads began popping up in newspapers around the country offering $1,000 for any unopened sixers of Billy Beer. Anyone who was sitting on some unopened Billy Beer became ecstatic about turning horrid beer into big money. A week or two later, the same papers would run classified ads from someone who wanted to sell their Billy Beer for a mere $200 a sixer, a discount of 80-percent off of its “true” value!

This scam should have been fairly transparent, but it fooled a lot of people. Cans of Billy Beer became the booze-filled Beanie Babies of their day. By the time Ronald Reagan moved into the White House, people were convinced that their cans of crummy beer were more valuable than stock certificates. In December 1981, The New York Times ran a letter to the editor from a can collector who tried to explain that, no, these common cans weren’t precious commodities. He pegged the value of a can at somewhere between fifty cents and a dollar. Two weeks later, the Times ran a rebuttal letter that stridently decried the collector’s point and declared, “I wish to put the matter to rest by informing your readers that I was personally offered $600 for one unopened can.”

If that story is true, we hope the letter writer took the deal. As anyone who collected baseball cards in the '80s can tell you, Billy Beer perfectly fit the mold for a worthless collectible. It was made in giant quantities. Hordes of people had speculatively saved some. It had no intrinsic value. Rumors of the beer’s value persisted throughout the decade, though, and sellers found suckers, er, customers from time to time. In 1988 the Times even reported on a West Virginia couple who had bought a sealed case for a mere $2,000.

That poor couple probably wishes it had its money back. Although the “Billy Beer is valuable!” myth hasn’t totally died, the cans’ aren’t exactly demanding a king’s ransom on today’s collector’s market. A quick perusal of recent eBay auctions shows that an unopened can of Billy Beer tops out at around $10, while a six-pack might fetch $15-25. On the plus side, the beers probably don’t taste appreciably worse than they did in their 1978 heyday.

8 Momentous Facts About Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address

An illustration of Abraham Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address from 1905.
An illustration of Abraham Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address from 1905.
Sherwood Lithograph Co., Library of Congress // No known restrictions on publication

Seven score and 17 years ago, Abraham Lincoln uttered fewer than 280 words in front of Union mourners at the site of the Battle of Gettysburg. Brief as it was, the Gettysburg Address captured the democratic spirit of the nation and galvanized the North to redouble their efforts in the Civil War.

Read on to learn more about the speech that originated the phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people” and taught us all that longer doesn’t always mean better.

1. Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

The Union triumphed over Robert E. Lee’s Confederate forces at the Battle of Gettysburg—often considered the turning point of the Civil War—in July 1863, but both sides suffered grievous losses. Townspeople formed a committee to replace more than 3500 temporary battlefield graves with a national cemetery, and committee leader David Mills invited Abraham Lincoln to deliver “a few appropriate remarks” at the dedication ceremony on November 19. Though Lincoln spoke for just two minutes, his 272-word Gettysburg Address remains one of the most famous speeches ever delivered.

2. The Gettysburg Address wasn’t the main speech of the event.

edward everett
Edward Everett
Internet Archive Book Images, Flickr // No known copyright restrictions

The star speaker of the ceremony was Edward Everett, a former Harvard president, U.S. congressman and governor of Massachusetts, and Millard Fillmore’s secretary of state. Everett lived up to his reputation as the greatest orator of the time with an epic, impassioned two-hour speech that he delivered from memory. But he, too, was impressed with Lincoln’s concision.

“Permit me also to express my great admiration of the thoughts expressed by you, with such eloquent simplicity & appropriateness, at the consecration of the Cemetery,” he wrote to Lincoln in a letter the following day. “I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

3. Abraham Lincoln probably didn’t write the Gettysburg Address on the train.

Legend has it that Lincoln hastily scrawled his brief speech on the back of an envelope on the train ride from Washington, D.C. to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. However, one copy was partially written on official White House stationery, leading experts to believe that Lincoln worked on his speech before leaving home and finished it the night before the ceremony. Also, the bumpy train rides of the 1860s would have affected Lincoln’s handwriting, and both of his early manuscripts are written in his characteristically neat, even script.

4. Abraham Lincoln may have had smallpox when he delivered the Gettysburg Address.

On the train ride to Gettysburg, Lincoln reportedly told one of his private secretaries that he felt weak, and his health deteriorated rapidly in the days after the speech. In 2007, researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston studied the symptoms of his mysterious illness—which included high fevers, headaches, backaches, and scarlet blisters all over his skin—and suggested that he had actually suffered from a life-threatening case of smallpox. Fortunately, Lincoln made a full recovery, and resumed his regular presidential duties three weeks after falling ill.

5. The Gettysburg Address has similarities to Pericles’s funeral oration from 431 BCE.

pericles's funeral oration
Pericles's Funeral Oration by Philipp Foltz, 1852.
Philipp Foltz, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 431 BCE, Athenian statesman Pericles delivered a rousing speech to commemorate those who had already perished in the Peloponnesian War (which would last for nearly 30 more years). Not only do both speeches honor the soldiers’ sacrifice, but they also recognize those who came before them, emphasize equality in the eyes of the law, and encourage the surviving citizens to continue to fight for the greater good.

6. Not everyone loved the Gettysburg Address at the time.

Though many Union supporters and Republicans praised Lincoln’s carefully chosen words, Democrats and other skeptics did nothing to hide their derision—in fact, certain publications practically shouted about it. The Chicago Times said that “the cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly flat dishwatery utterances of a man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the president of the United States,” and Pennsylvania’s Daily Patriot and Union recommended that the nation never repeat or think about “the silly remarks” ever again. Even the Times of London thought the ceremony “was rendered ludicrous by some of the sallies of that poor President Lincoln.”

7. There are five known manuscript copies of the Gettysburg Address.

bliss copy gettysburg address
The Bliss copy of the Gettysburg Address.
Smithsonian Collection, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The two early manuscripts that Abraham Lincoln entrusted to his private secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay, are both housed in the Library of Congress. Sometime after he delivered the speech, Lincoln penned three more copies. One was for Everett, which is now kept at the Illinois State Historical Library; another, now at Cornell University, was requested by historian George Bancroft; and a third, for Bancroft’s stepson, Colonel Alexander Bliss, now lives in the Lincoln Room of the White House.

The five manuscripts differ slightly, and so do people’s opinions on which one is considered standard. Some prefer the Bliss copy, since it was Lincoln’s final draft and also the only copy he signed, while others think the Associated Press transcription from the actual event is a more accurate version of the speech.

8. There’s only one confirmed photo of Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg.

abraham lincoln at gettysburg
David Bachrach, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1952, archivist Josephine Cobb was studying a glass negative of a photo taken by David Bachrach when she spotted a familiar face in the crowd at the Gettysburg dedication ceremony. It was Abraham Lincoln, his hat-less head slightly bowed as he waited for his turn at the podium later that afternoon. Alexander Gardner also snapped a photograph at the occasion that might show Lincoln, too, but people disagree about exactly where Lincoln appears. John Richter, director of the Center for Civil War Photography, identifies him on horseback, while former Disney animator Christopher Oakley places him on the ground several yards to the right.

What Happens to Leftover Campaign Funds When a Candidate Drops Out?

Alek_Koltukov/iStock via Getty Images
Alek_Koltukov/iStock via Getty Images

As of February 2020, more than 1000 individuals had registered to run for president in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, though you've probably only ever heard a fraction of their names. But as Election Day looms closer, and the state primaries continue to decide the frontrunners, more of the most visible candidates will officially bow out of the election. So what happens to all the leftover campaign funds when a candidate drops out?

One thing's for sure: Upset candidates can't console themselves by putting the dough toward a new yacht and sailing off to recuperate. The Federal Election Commission has strict rules about what federal candidates can and can't do with leftover campaign money, and the biggest directive is that they can't pocket it for personal use.

Here's what a campaign committee is allowed to do with any lingering cash: it can donate the funds to charities or political parties; it can contribute $2000 per election to other candidates; and it can save the money in case the candidate chooses to run again. However, those regulations don't apply to the relatively new super PACs (Political Action Committees); this is only the third election where they have played a role, and there are currently no rules to stipulate what happens to that money beyond that it cannot go to fund another federal candidate. Much of that money tends to be returned to its original donors, used to wrap up the failed campaign, or donated to back a state-level candidate. The goal, however, is always to spend all of that money.

Running a campaign is an expensive proposition—Barack Obama spent nearly $750 million on his 2008 White House bid, and in 2012 he spent $985 million on reelection while challenger Mitt Romney spent $992 million—and insufficient cash is often a reason campaigns go belly up.

As for winning (or sometimes losing) politicians, they'll often put their leftover funds toward their next race. If they choose not to run, they have to abide by the same FEC rules. Wonder why this law is in effect? Until 1993, U.S. Representatives who took office before January 8, 1980, were allowed to keep any leftover campaign cash when they retired, but a study showed that a third of Congress kept and spent millions in campaign donations on personal items like clothing, jewelry, artwork, personal travel, and dry cleaning. Embarrassed, Congress passed a law negating this custom for the House; the Senate already had provisions in place so this wouldn't happen.

In reality though, officials can usually find a way to make that cash still work for them (and state laws differ from federal ones). After Chris Christie won reelection as New Jersey's governor in 2014, his campaign was granted permission to use some of its remaining war chest to cover the legal fees Christie incurred during the Bridgegate scandal. And this was well before he dropped $26.7 million on his failed 2016 presidential bid.

An earlier version of this article originally ran in 2012.

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