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Pickens County, S.C.

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A visit to Bush country

February 21, 2000
Web posted at: 4:10 p.m. EST (2110 GMT)

In every primary there is a moment of revelation, and in South Carolina mine came the day I grabbed my bags and jumped off George W. Bush's bus. Most media hacks listen to the same speech three times daily, delivered ad nauseam to the 2% of the population that shows up at political rallies. But this hack was curious about the other 98%, and so I wandered into coffeehouses and barbecue joints, and eventually I came upon a place the Zagat restaurant guide missed altogether--the Roadkill Grill.

Intuition told me there had to be such a place. It sits along Highway 178 near Rocky Bottom, just shy of the North Carolina border. The Roadkill Grill is an outdoor barbecue pit on the property of Bob's Place, a rustic beer tavern where the Confederate flag flies proud and the "Hillbilly Poem" is stapled to an outside wall. It reads, "We're noted for our hard times and God's great creation. We're the people of the hillbilly nation."

The hillbillies, it turns out, liked Bush, as did plenty of God-fearing family folk, party loyalists and professionals who fit more comfortably into the new South Carolina. But across the spectrum, the support seemed as soft and mushy as a bowl of yellow grits. When I asked why she liked Bush, Romaine Johnson, 73, who runs Bob's with son Tony, 47, chewed on it and said, "Cuz he's a good-lookin' man." She expected her regular customers to vote Bush. Why? "I guess because they liked his daddy."

It was then I knew two things: that Bush had South Carolina in his pocket and that he's in trouble over the long haul if he doesn't come up with a clear sense of why people ought to vote for him.

That isn't to say I didn't find any strong support. In Columbia, loan officer George Tisdale, 57, liked Bush's samurai tax cut and education policy. In Beaufort, retiree Lula ("Lou") Price, 74, agonized over her choice and even subjected herself to regular viewing of C-SPAN for enlightenment. She started Bush, tilted McCain and ended up sold on Bush as the man best suited to erase all memory of President Clinton.

But more often than not, when I asked people "Why Bush?" it was as if they had a zinc deficiency. The smile would freeze, the eyes would cloud and all signs of intelligence would fade. It could just be that Bush has had trouble defining himself--never uttering the word reform and then suddenly parading a banner--or that the nasty, lowbrow campaign in South Carolina made us all a little dumber.

Tony Johnson, by the way, said he would have voted Bush except that as an ex-con, he had lost his voting rights. A friend chugged by in a pickup, and Tony made like The Rifleman, pretending to lock and load. It seemed prudent at this juncture to ask Tony why he'd been in the can. Weapons charges, he said. "I had you in my sights too," he added, talking about my approach.

So maybe it's not for everybody, the hillbilly nation. In the nearby town of Pickens, the chance of getting picked off in someone's shooting fantasy were slimmer, but Bush support was no less rabid. On Main Street, barber Don Gravely, who liked McCain, was putting whitewalls on 20-year-old Kevin Gilstrap's head when I asked Gilstrap his preference. "Bush." And why? "Well, I'm not real sure. He used to be a Major League baseball owner, and I'm a pretty big baseball fan." Bret Turner, 30, climbed into the chair next and said Bush had his vote because of his Christian values. Turner had met Bush at a rally and promised to pray for him. "He said, 'That means a lot, because I know the power of prayer.'"

It was the power of prayer, I believe, that saved me in Greenville, when I got lost coming out of 3 Little Pigs Barbecue and nearly turned into a delivery entrance at Bob Jones University. Bush, the compassionate conservative who wants to bring the whole world into the Republican Party, opened his South Carolina campaign at the school, which bans interracial dating and isn't terribly fond of Catholicism. A guy named Lopez who served briefly as an altar boy is probably safer in the hillbilly nation.

There was, in the end, one more bond among Bush supporters--they can't stand Bill Clinton. "We've had a fox--now it's time for a lion," is how Lou Price put it. It remains to be seen if Bush swung so far right--last week he said he doesn't believe an openly gay person would share his philosophy--that he won South Carolina at the cost of losing other states. It's a long walk to the White House, and even a lion could end up as roadkill.


Cover Date: February 28, 2000



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