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Full Metal Jeer

He opens his big mouth and sounds off twice a week, lives large inside a paid-by-Hollywood mansion in Los Angeles, chooses Eminem's 8 Mile soundtrack as his favorite music, has a well-known stylist fashioning his put-together look, and gets free head-to-toe wardrobes from a famous clothing store. Yes, there he is, showing off in prime time while young guys his age are shown on television weathering crude conditions in Iraq, waging pitched battles with the enemy and putting their lives on the line for America.

Hollywood's harshest critics could say this spotlighted star personifies the self-involvement and self-indulgency of the U.S. entertainment industry in wartime.

They could, but they're not. In fact, they're saying nothing about Lance Corporal Josh Gracin, the Marine who's still safe and sound and singing on American Idol 2.

They're saying nothing even though the military newspaper Stars and Stripes reported on March 17 that "many Marines from Gracin's unit, the 1st Force Service Group, have been deployed to Kuwait" — which contradicts a claim by Camp Pendleton officials back on January 27 that Gracin's unit was scheduled to remain stateside.

They're saying nothing even though six Marines, stationed like Gracin at Camp Pendleton but who went to war unlike Gracin, died in the opening phases of Operation Iraqi Freedom — four killed in a CH-46E Sea Knight helicopter crash on March 20 south of the Iraqi border in Kuwait; two killed in action March 21 in southern Iraq.

They're saying nothing even though Camp Pendleton held a memorial service for the dead soldiers in the morning Tuesday while that night Gracin appeared live on Fox as one of the 10 remaining finalists competing for fame, fortune and a fat recording contract.

They're saying nothing even though, just days after his first appearance on American Idol the evening of January 22, Gracin's own mother disclosed in an undisputedly authentic e-mail obtained by the Detroit News that the show pulled strings to keep Gracin in Southern California even though he was slated to be deployed with his unit in Kuwait. "American Idol had to work with Washington to get Josh out of the deployment. His platoon is leaving next week," said her message published January 26. "Once his stint on American Idol is over, Josh will be sent to Kuwait."

Brenda Gracin's e-mail contradicted a Marine Corps corporal who claimed the next day that the 22-year-old administration supply clerk was not exempted from deployment and that he, along with other members of his unit, was scheduled to remain behind at Camp Pendleton in support of the Marines in the forward theater. Through it all, Gracin's family is contractually barred by Fox, which airs American Idol, from speaking to reporters.

But Detroit News reporter David Shepardson told the Weekly that an angry Brenda Gracin did phone after the article appeared, not to deny the contents of her e-mail but to ask how the newspaper had obtained it. "She was not happy, but she never disputed the accuracy of the e-mail," Shepardson notes.

The hypocrisy of it all. This Gracin guy's presence on American Idol ignites cheers whereas that Moore guy's words at the Academy Awards incite jeers. Even days later, right-wing talk-radio hosts and callers were talking, talking and talking some Moore, offering to kick "that leftist bastard's traitorous, unpatriotic, commie ass" all the way to Paris, and Baghdad and hell. (Too bad we'll never know the reaction of the supposedly right-minded had Michael Moore stuck to his original plan: "If I win the Oscar, to say nothing. Just ask for a moment of silence and stand there for those 45 seconds.")

But not a word against Gracin from those microphone hogs Rush Limbaugh (best friends with Fox News chief Roger Ailes, who also produced the talker's short-lived TV show), or Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity (both Fox News anchors), or any other self-appointed arbiter of what constitutes proper patriotic American behavior and thinks of Fox News as the Mother Ship. Like him or not, Moore is too old for the military, while Gracin, the latest poster boy for the Marines, is on active duty in the middle of Hollywood.

Go figure. But when you do, add up how much that charter member of Big Media, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., and its cavalcade of corporate sponsors have invested in the singing contest. On Wednesday night, just as the war was starting at about 6:40 p.m. PST, Fox Entertainment's TV network didn't dare dump the show. Instead, the suits showed the hourlong program in its entirety beginning at 8:15 p.m. in L.A. and beat coverage of the U.S. attack on Iraq to win the evening with an 8.6 rating and 12 share that rose to 10.4 and 14 in the last half-hour. (General Electric's NBC also stuck to its Thursday night lineup of sitcoms, and won the ratings war with repeats.)

Now factor in the advertisers, like giants Coca-Cola, Ford, AT&T and Clairol, as well as Old Navy (which gave all the contestants new clothes, swapping Gracin's trademark baggy sweater and jeans for hipper casualwear). Not to mention the military, cognizant that 30 million viewers tuned in for last year's American Idol finale.

Camp Pendleton spokeswoman, Captain Alison Salerno, even admitted to reporters back on January 27 that the Marines saw "the recruiting value in Gracin's appearances before a national audience as well as appreciated his talent and recognized the benefits of allowing him to continue competing." In other words, Gracin had become a military marionette. (Albeit a plump one. After Brit bully Simon Cowell pointed to the young man's protruding stomach, Gracin dropped to the ground and gave him straight-armed pushups.)

We can learn everything about him from Fox's God Bless America-style interviews: Raised in Westland, Michigan, and now living in Oceanside, California, Gracin first sang at an eighth-grade talent show, then graduated to choirs and fairs. The Garth Brooks wannabe traveled to Los Angeles for the Idol auditions, where he was plucked from among 50,000 in Los Angeles. He spoke to his command and to lawyers on the base for permission, then milked his military service for all it was worth. A Marine journalist wrote, "According to Gracin, it was suggested just prior to his time in front of the judges that he report in a military fashion to make his audition unique." So he marched, saluted and sang. According to Stars and Stripes, he has been in the service only two and a half years, but that still afforded him the privilege to be "on permissive temporarily assigned duty and using his accumulated 45 days of leave to be away from his job."

But 45 days was up last week, so why is he still here? The military newspaper noted that if Gracin does receive deployment orders before he is eliminated from the show, Fox producers promised to return him to next year's competition at the same ranking.

All this special treatment, not to mention sympathy. Asked "Who is your American idol?" Gracin replied his wife, high school sweetheart Ann Marie, who takes care of their 11-month- old daughter, Briana. "She's dealt with a lot, with me being gone." Gee, you'd think Gracin was on a battlefield.

Maybe soon Gracin will shut up, suck it up and ship out on his own. Or maybe the public will realize it has been fooled. After all, on the nightly news, Americans are seeing the real Marines performing their real jobs. That says it all.


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