‘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.’
Branson caters to this clientele and its vacation dollar. On the Branson strip, there are more than a hundred stage shows featuring old-time musicians, comedians, acrobats, jugglers, singers and dancers, who figured out that they could make their lives easier by staying in one place, and set out to persuade the punters to come to them. Many entertainers have built their own flashy theatres, with vast gift shops, motherly attendants and huge parking lots. In Branson you can find the Osmond Brothers, the Lennon Sisters, Andy Williams and Ann-Margret, and many country and western stars of yore. The disgraced evangelical preacher Jim Bakker has set up shop too, and broadcasts a TV show featuring other local preachers and gospel singers.
Branson hasn’t got an airport yet, and the tourists are mainly motorists from the Midwest and the South in RVs, SUVs and mini-vans. In our motel parking lot we count licence plates from 15 states, and at the shows there are busloads of customers back for their tenth or 12th trip. They are an odd mix: military groups, large neatly dressed families, senior citizens, toothpick-chewing bikers. The Red Hat Society is having a convention, and the streets are jammed with clusters of elderly women in purple T-shirts and the elaborate red garden-party hats that are the society’s trademark (its slogan is ‘fun after fifty’). At every restaurant and pancake house, tourists are offered free tickets to any show if they will listen to a pitch on buying real estate. There is also an amusement park, a trendy fashion outlet, and craft shops offering chainsaw sculpture and patchwork quilts.
The locals have figured out that scheduling shows in different time-slots, as on television, increases the take for everyone. In the evening, a prime-time draw is Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede. Audience members are assigned to cheer and wave flags for the North or the South (this is a white tourist destination), while trick riders dressed in Union or Confederate uniforms compete in feats of skill, Southern belles warble, everyone has a hoe-down, and volunteers from the audience chase chickens, race ostriches, ride hobby-horses, and bet on Yankee and Rebel piglets to run through a maze. Like all Branson shows, this one ends in patriotism, as the riders come out in red, white and blue, and Dolly on a huge video screen sings ‘God Bless America’.
The next morning there are a few thousand bright-eyed tourists lining up to get into the Yakov Smirnoff Show. Smirnoff is a Russian-born comedian who has made a hugely successful career (this is his third, biggest and glitziest Branson theatre) comparing the US and the USSR, and describes his life as a journey from ‘Red to Redneck’. He kicks off his show by asking us to stand as a soprano sings ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’, and ends with an emotional testimony about 9/11. The elderly audience laugh heartily at Smirnoff’s jokes about Hillary Clinton, the Clinton administration (‘sex between two bushes’) and gay marriage. In some respects, his humour is surprisingly cynical. In one skit, he pretends to be president (‘If maybe Schwarzenegger, why not Smirnoff?’), and invites the audience to ask him questions in a fake press conference. A woman earnestly inquires: ‘Mr President, how can we get our troops out of Eye-rack?’ ‘Easy,’ President Smirnoff replies. ‘We’ll invade Iran.’
From Missouri we drive through Bentonville, Arkansas, the headquarters and home of Wal-Mart, and a kind of American shrine, variously known as Main Street, USA, Vendorville (for the 200 corporations that have bases here in order to deal with Wal-Mart), or the headquarters of American corporate evil. Wal-Mart has a million employees, more than 3000 stores in the US, and an annual income of about $250 billion; it is widely reviled for being anti-union, for global exploitation, and for destroying local economies when it moves in with its gigantic stores. Yet as we drove into the heart of the heart of the country, it was obvious that Wal-Mart was an oasis for many small towns that couldn’t have had much of anything to begin with – towns with 18 churches but no moviehouse or café. Bentonville itself is a pretty and prosperous little city. The Wal-Mart Visitors Center, at the site of the original store, is closed on Sundays, so we couldn’t pay our respects. But we did buy the New York Sunday Times at a brand-new Starbucks; we wouldn’t see the paper again until we got to Tucson.
Crossing into Oklahoma, we pass the first of many casinos, gambling and gaming operations owned by Native American tribes. In the early morning, it is already doing good business; the parking lot is filling up. National law recognises the right of Indian tribes to establish gambling facilities on their reservations, and 29 states now have them. American Indians, traditionally Democrats – this year Indians donated $4.9 million to the political campaigns, 65 per cent to the Democrats – are now being wooed by the Republican Party. There’s a flourishing tourist industry centred on the Wild West and its outlaw heroes – you don’t forget that Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday once walked the streets of Tombstone, Arizona.
But no one seems to be walking the streets of Tulsa, Oklahoma, with their used-car lots, pawn shops and bail bond offices. Tulsa even has a Right Wing Restaurant (chicken, I guess), and the fundamentalist Oral Roberts University, with its huge prayer tower, is the city’s main tourist attraction. Dr Tom Coburn, Oklahoma’s Republican candidate for the Senate, may be the most conservative candidate in the country. ‘No one gets to the right of the guy,’ a supporter says. Coburn is against condoms, embryonic stem-cell research, gay rights and government spending; and he favours ‘the death penalty for abortionists’. To be sure, the Tulsa World is editorialising gloomily about Iraq, but by this point the print media seem irrelevant as sources of information. Local papers are skimpy; national papers, except for USA Today, hard to find. On Tulsa TV news, meanwhile, the lead story is a poll that shows that if the world voted in the US election, Kerry would win in a landslide everywhere except Poland. I’m not at all sure how this plays in Oklahoma.
Oklahoma City is the unlikely centre of recent American terrorism: the Federal Building here was bombed on 19 April 1995. A dignified park commemorates the dead. A piece of graffiti on the wall of the adjoining Oklahoma City Journal Record Building is a more personal statement, from one of the rescue squads: ‘Team 5, 4-19-95. We search for the truth. We seek justice. The courts require it. The victims cry for it. And God demands it.’ Already it seems like ancient history, like a Civil War battlefield, like Flanders Field. These days we don’t hear much about the right-wing American militias and their discontents. Do they still exist? Are they joining the security companies in Iraq?
We detour to Waco, Texas, to see the remnants of the Branch Davidian compound at Mount Carmel that was stormed by FBI agents on 19 April 1993. This was the siege that Timothy McVeigh used to justify his attack in Oklahoma City two years later. Mount Carmel is off a dirt road, a ghost town with a few empty buildings and a small chapel. On the porch, a sleepy dog regards us without concern. There is a little field of crape myrtle trees planted for the 74 people who died in the fire, and some plaques outside the church. ‘We declare this tabernacle to be a house of prayer for all,’ one says. Another is dedicated to those who died in Oklahoma City. A burned-out bus that used to carry the Branch Davidian faithful into town lies rusting in the weeds, but a few days later we read that the car that belonged to their leader, David Koresh, has been auctioned for $37,500. No word on who gets those big bucks.
In the university town of Austin, Texas we begin to see bumper stickers again. They flaunt their hipness: ‘Keep Austin Weird’ is a motto you see on T-shirts and bags, and stores like to shock with names like ‘Mom’s Tattoos’. But Austin still has the big church town sensibility, so much so that the Atheist Community offers a Sunday morning televised call-in show. Outside Austin, in the Texas Hill Country, the roadkill changes to armadillos, coyotes and skunks. There are a lot of Bush-Cheney signs, calls for God to Bless America, yellow ribbons. But there’s also the LBJ State Park and Historic Site, which seems to attract a fair number of tourists. In 1966 I couldn’t have imagined that LBJ would become a folk hero. Maybe in another forty years our grandchildren will be lining up respectfully to take the bus tour of the Bush ranch in Crawford.
The town of Fredericksburg in the Texas Hill Country was settled in the 19th century by pious and hard-working German immigrants. It has kept its German identity, but now it’s a resort with upscale restaurants, gift and craft shops, and charming B&Bs. One B&B owner wearing a T-shirt that says ‘Proud Parent of 3 US Marines’ tells us that if Kerry wins the election, he’s thinking of fleeing to Canada. ‘The country won’t be safe,’ he tells us. ‘We’ll be attacked again. People don’t realise what is at stake in this war.’ Two of his children have served in Iraq, where they made Iraqi friends and keep up by email. They insist that the TV news is distorted and negative. To this man, Kerry betrayed the US by his anti-war activities after Vietnam. ‘And why hasn’t Kerry been to Iraq to see things for himself?’ he asks us. How ironic that Canada, once the destination of choice for Vietnam draft resisters, is now being cited as a refuge for worried Republicans. I realise that the rhetoric of American ‘safety’ sounds very different to each side. For the left, the question of whether America is safer now than it was before 9/11 takes in our standing in the world, and the threats of nuclear proliferation and increasing Islamist fundamental extremism. For the right, it means that there hasn’t been another attack on our own ground, and the fear of such an attack is the most powerful legacy of 9/11.
In Deming, New Mexico, a shabby motel desperately advertises that it is ‘American-owned and managed’; we are very close to the Mexican border, with many shop signs in Spanish. We drive up to Roswell through flash floods. Aliens allegedly landed here in 1947, and there’s a makeshift little museum with some yellowing clippings, and a place that sells Alien Pickles. On this rainy Sunday a few families are touring the museum, but after 9/11, the notion of alien abduction seems as quaint and legendary as being abducted by Billy the Kid. Blurry photos of supposed ‘alien implants’, vague scratches on pale skin, won’t even scare a five-year-old in these days of orange alert and terrorists beheading hostages on television.
Over dinner at the Arizona Inn in Tucson, a young journalist tells us he has a ‘gut feeling’ that Kerry will win. ‘Bush has the hands of a loser,’ he says. ‘His gestures are fumbling, nervous, defeated.’ A medical student tells us, ambiguously, that she has warned her father-in-law that he’d better vote for Kerry ‘if he ever wants to see his grandchildren’.
On the home stretch of our journey west I begin to feel bombarded by warning signs: ‘Don’t walk in the Cactus Garden’; ‘Do not enter the underpass when flooded’, ‘Do not feed the coyotes’; ‘State Prison – Do Not Pick up Hitchhikers’. Finally, as we cross from Arizona to California, on Interstate 10, we see another big sign: ‘11 September 2001: Stay Focused, America.’
We get to Los Angeles just in time to see the first debate. Bush is inarticulate, repetitive and petulant. Here the stores feature a new kind of warning sign: ‘The air in this parking garage may be unsafe for pregnant women’; ‘Use these antibacterial wipes to sanitise your shopping cart’; ‘Balsamic vinegar may cause cancer.’ As I write, there is a month to go before the election. Another month of deaths, lies, debates and fears. More mixed messages, or, as Bush misspoke in the first debate, ‘mexxed missages’. I’m focused, I’m vigilant, I’m informed, I’m prepared, I’m exhausted.