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.