Hillbilly Heartache

A Georgia senator gets a dose of reality.


Zell Miller, a senator from the Georgia mountains who apparently identifies with the heartache of hillbillies, went on a little rampage recently, slamming CBS President Leslie Moonves for developing a new reality show called The Real Beverly Hillbillies.

Moonves is under pressure from advertisers to come up with new reality shows. In fact, every network executive is probably more to be pitied than despised for being treated like a puppet by Madison Avenue moguls who want more and more bizarre versions of The Real World. But in this case that's not even the point.

Miller claims the new program will be a "minstrel show" that makes fun of the poor. (The metaphor is a stretch, since minstrel shows were invented by white people to showcase the music of black people. If this were a minstrel show, CBS would have black people dressed up like hillbillies singing Hank Williams tunes.)

Anyway, Miller thinks it's an insult to take a poor white family from down in the holler and stick 'em in a Beverly Hills mansion to see what happens.

Yet every hillbilly I've ever met—and my reporting career has included stints in both Arkansas and Tennessee—was proud of his background. Proud of living in the back country, proud of living in the same place his whole life, proud of his ability to shoot squirrels and wild pigs, proud of whatever local quirks made his county the poorest or the crookedest (a term that could apply to both the slope of the roads and the quality of the politicians) or the most notorious place in the hills.

In fact, hillbillies themselves were the first to capitalize commercially on the hillbilly mystique. Whether you're in the Ozarks or Appalachia, you're never more than 15 minutes from a store that sells corncob pipes to tourists, not to mention those straw hats that make you look like Mr. Green-jeans.

The idea of sending hillbillies to live in Beverly Hills is fatally flawed anyway. As redneck trailer-park dwellers have proved for years on The Jerry Springer Show, these people are so media-savvy that they know exactly what the producer wants and are more than prepared to provide an outrageously overblown version of it. The folks that end up living on Beverly Drive will already know their way around a TV camera—because what do you think they've been doing back in the woods their entire lives? Watching TV!

But there's a more fundamental reason why Miller should welcome the experiment. The family depicted in the original 1960s series, The Beverly Hillbillies, turned out to be wiser, kinder, and more intelligent than the city slickers around them.

You had Jed, whose homespun wisdom always worked, even though it made sense only to him. You had Granny, who held the family together by sheer force of will. You had Jethro, who provided comic relief but was the hunka hunka burning love that every girl wanted. And you had Ellie Mae, who was a liberated woman before her time, yet still feminine.

The doofuses in the plot line were Miss Jane, the pseudo-sophisticate whose efforts to "reform" the Clampetts never worked, and the oily banker who never approved of their investment plans.

The Clampetts actually turned out to be more Californian than the Californians, as their fierce independence and unashamed individuality—they were who they were—resembled the hippie lifestyle more than anything else. We're not bound by the principles of the past, they said, and we're not impressed by the trappings of wealth, and we'll live exactly as we please.

If there were an official Hillbilly Creed, it would be:

?Leave us be.

?Be kind to strangers.

?If somebody threatens your kinfolk, don't be afraid to get the shotgun.

?Everybody's at the same level. There are no classes.

The Clampetts, in short, are all-American small-d democrats.

Miller should watch a few episodes. He could use that kind of class in Congress.