‘Be vigilant, informed and prepared,’ a sign on the Pennsylvania state highway flashes as my husband and I head out from Washington DC to Los Angeles. OK, but prepared for what? It’s the first of many signs that call us to attention on this September road trip through Bush Country. The last time we drove cross-country was in 1966, in our VW Bug, along with the baby and the cat. Only the cat, alas, was drugged, but in the early years of Vietnam, with huge differences between rich and poor, between urban and rural America, that trip was as hallucinatory as Easy Rider. This time we are zigzagging slowly through the swing states and the Red Zone of the Southwest, trying to figure out the mood of the United States in the lead-up to the presidential election. Why is the country so divided? Why would anyone vote for Bush?
What we find is both frightening and farcical, what Bush would call a mixed message. Middle America is scared and scary, gun-toting and God-fearing, but not a monolith and not out of touch. The super-sized, excessive, wacky display that is the source of so much American humour was in evidence, always with an edge of self-mockery. Since our 1966 trip, there has been enormous cultural progress, wrought by the internet, TV, jet travel and the growth in higher education. Every motel now offers an email connection. There are yellow ribbons, signifying support for US troops, everywhere; but there is also deep unhappiness about Iraq, suspicion of the government, and a lot of weary and bitter joking about the endless bad news. We are surprised by the absence of bumper stickers. In Washington, they are ubiquitous and ferocious; when we get to Los Angeles they are all around us; but in between the coasts it seems as if people have made up their minds and don’t want to antagonise anyone else.
Our first stop is Pittsburgh, historically an industrial giant and the home town of Teresa Heinz Kerry. It is struggling to revitalise its city centre, and to rebuild its economy. In the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, its hyphenated name a sign of media mergers, Dan Simpson’s column declares that if Pittsburgh is indeed one of the places where the election could be decided, ‘we want a decent running-back for the Steelers.’ The city is home to the Andy Warhol Museum on Sandusky Street, where Andrew Warhola was born in 1928. As the director John Waters has said, every kid needs someone really bad to look up to, and the Warhol legacy carries on that counter-cultural role for a new generation. The museum recently organised an exhibition of the prison photographs from Abu Ghraib.
In rural West Virginia, Ohio and Indiana, we seem to enter a time-warp. The radio stations are playing corny 1950s and 1960s pop about teenage love; restaurants are folksy meeting places for religious groups (Bikers for Jesus). In Ohio, diners carry signs warning ‘No weapons or ordnance allowed.’ In Indianapolis the whole city seems to be out watching boys play midget football in the warm twilight. Our destination is Branson, Missouri, a town in the Ozarks which specialises in Christian family entertainment. Missouri is a swing state, almost evenly split between rural Republicans and urban Democrats. The economy and the war worry everyone, but many voters here don’t think they can do much about those big problems and go for abortion, homosexuality, gun control instead. ‘The Republicans will hurt me in the long run in providing for my family,’ one Missouri blue-collar worker told the New York Times, ‘but it’s probably more important to watch out for the unborn and that kind of stuff.’