VICKSBURG, Miss. — On the eve of what is arguably the most important presidential election in decades, Hollywood has again become a lightning rod. It simply takes a trip out of town to see the extent to which that is true.All an opponent has to do to disparage a Democrat is suggest he’s soft on terrorism, lied about his military record — or consorts with showbiz people. Put all three together and that Dem is probably toast. It certainly feels that way in my home state of Mississippi, where I’ve spent a lot of time recently. Local friends once envied the glamour they imagined I soaked up on the West Coast; now they’re now more likely to wonder how I could live in such a den of iniquity. Ironically, as showbizzers puff themselves up trying to shape political change this year, they find themselves further removed from the auds who support their films, tours and TV shows. Much of this Tinseltown turn-off has to do with the current division of the nation into two mutually uncomprehending camps. If you thought the Blue and the Gray could never be reconciled, take a look at the Red and the Blue. Consider this contrast in styles: While Hollywood celebs and wannabes savored sushi and chowder in Boston with Democratic bigwigs, folks in Mississippi were munching corndogs and funnel cakes at the state’s annual political picnic in Neshoba County. If the former came across as an elitist, uptown staged event, the latter is a downhome affair, in which lots of high-carb Bubba food, gospel music, horse trading and colorful stump speeches alternate throughout a long, hot weekend. The anti-Kerry rhetoric at the event was thicker than mosquitoes — not surprising, in a state that went substantially for Bush last time around and in which whites have voted Republican ever since Reagan, and blacks overwhelmingly for Dems ever since LBJ. Trent Lott, he of the unguarded racist remark that cost him the Majority leader post in the Senate, disparaged Kerry at the Neshoba event as “a French-speaking socialist.” State governor and former D.C. lobbyist Haley Barbour threw this bone to the crowd: “If you are for higher taxes, if you are for homosexual marriage, if you are pro-abortion, if you are for greater government spending with no accountability, you’ll love John Kerry.” No one piped up to counter these views. It all made for great theater, even if the remarks about taxes were lost on a crowd who — like most folks in the state — don’t make enough money to have benefited much from President Bush’s vaunted tax cuts. Any rational analysis would suggest that Mississippians would benefit more from the health, education and job policies proposed by the Democrats, the state being chronically at the bottom of the rankings in these areas. A similar argument can be made in much of the Rust Belt and other parts of the Deep South. But even if the Dems try to articulate these economic truths smartly, the current rift in the country isn’t principally about money: The divisions are about culture and lifestyle — or as they say down here, “principles” — and the rifts have created some unlikely allies. In this part of the union, poor folks living in trailers on food stamps will be voting the same Republican ticket as white, college-educated country-clubbers. Guns, God and Gays loom large in the consciousness of the heartland — and the only one of the three that Hollywood sometimes gets right is the guns. (Movies have enough violence to satisfy the folks here, and Charlton Heston is one of the few celebs who’s much admired.) The Republicans’ branding of Massachusetts liberals, New York intellectuals and Hollywood types as unpatriotic, morally lax and intellectually preening has been encouraged by right-wing radio, the single most powerful media outlet in the heartland. Ben Affleck may be too cute not to be a draw on TV talkshows (even Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly had him on, and didn’t rough him up), but right-wing radio pundits and media-savvy evangelicals have less compunction. So Affleck, despite his charms, could easily end up on the same list of showbiz renegades as Sean Penn, Whoopi Goldberg, Alec Baldwin, et alia.
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