For politicians, the sphere of the personal shrinks as that of the political swells, until for some, the personal all but disappears. Then, even the choice of car becomes political. During the recent elections, one car loomed so large in the fleets of presidential aspirants that the manufacturer actually touted it as “The Candidates’ Choice” in advertisements that ran in Capitol Hill publications, such as Roll Call. Even more tellingly, the particular vehicle was unique to the left side of the aisle, and all were 2007 models, purchased after election season had begun.
President Barack Obama ditched his personal car for a politically correct vehicle during the summer of 2007, shortly after being outed for contradictions between his public exhortations and his private behavior. “While foreign competitors were investing in more fuel-efficient technology… American automakers were spending their time investing in bigger, faster cars,” Obama scolded in a May 2007 speech before the Detroit Economic Club. “The auto industry is on a path that is unacceptable and unsustainable.” Soon after that, the press revealed that Obama was driving one of the “bigger, faster cars,” a 340-horsepower Chrysler 300C. Not long after that, the Chrysler disappeared from Obama’s driveway, to be replaced by a Ford Escape Hybrid.
John Edwards, the now scandal-ridden former North Carolina senator who ran for vice president on John Kerry’s ticket in 2004 before running for president in 2008, bought his Escape Hybrid after being similarly outed for driving a big pickup truck, a 1994 GMC, right after admonishing Americans last August to sacrifice their SUVs, according to the Detroit News. But the macho truck may have been “purely an image acquisition,” said Mark Johnson, a reporter with the Charlotte Observer in Edwards’ home town. “I ride past his house on my bike commute, and I don’t think I ever saw it move,” Johnson told me during the last election season. If so, the older truck was “a very shrewd choice indeed,” because it conveys “an air of settled confidence,” said a North Carolina woman from an old southern family.
Edwards still owned a 2004 Chrysler Pacifica, which the family uses “less often,” an Edwards spokesman told me. The Edwardses were also in the habit of buying carbon offsets for their vehicles, a practice that has been compared to buying indulgences from the Catholic church to shorten one’s stay in purgatory.
Senator Christopher Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, who supported a 50-mpg requirement for automaker fleets by 2017, traded a Mustang for a 2007 Escape Hybrid.
Hillary Clinton also has a Ford Escape hybrid, which she uses when staying at the family home in Chappaqua, New York, according to her press secretary. Bill has the twin, a Mercury Mariner hybrid, which was conspicuously delivered to him at the Clinton Global Initiative conference in September of 2006. During election season, Hillary’s concerns about global warming did not stop her from advocating a summer-long federal gas tax holiday back when a gallon of regular was breaching $4.00, to be paid for by a windfall profits tax. Economists universally panned the tax holiday, saying it would boost demand, ultimately inflating gasoline prices, thus saving consumers almost nothing.
One candidate had always been particularly blatant about using cars-or in this case, a pickup truck-as a political prop. That would be the Watergate lawyer, who became an actor before serving Tennessee in the U.S. Senate from 1994-2003, Fred Thompson. He acquired the truck in question during the 1994 senatorial election, and used it to good effect, all over Tennessee, both during and afterwards. For example, in an article in the December 1996 Washington Monthly, Michelle Cottle described the scene at a speech Thompson gave at a high school near Knoxville, as she heard it from a childhood friend who was a teacher at that school.
“Finishing his talk, Thompson… walks out with the rest of the crowd to the red pickup truck he made famous during his 1994 Senate campaign. My friend stands talking with her colleagues as the senator is driven away by a blond, all-American staffer. A few minutes later, my friend gets into her car to head home. As she pulls up to the stop sign at the parking lot exit, rolling up to the intersection is Senator Thompson, now behind the wheel of a sweet silver luxury sedan… Turning onto the main road, my friend passes the school’s small, side parking area. Lo and behold: There sits the abandoned red pickup, along with the all-American staffer.”
Most of the rest of the candidates had cars that appeared to have been personal, rather than political choices. McCain, the ultimate challenger, had a pretty green record, at least until he picked up the now former Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. But McCain’s 2006 3.6 liter, 255 HP Cadillac CTS, could have vied with Obama’s Chrysler 300C in the stoplight grand prix. Nonetheless, it would probably went over better with his Republican political base than an Escape Hybrid would have.
The CTS might also seem a fitting ride for a former Navy combat pilot, except that it has the (6 speed) automatic transmission, and lacks the performance package. But McCain reportedly “did not love” flying, and he lost four planes in accidents before he was shot down in Vietnam, two of them apparently his fault.
While Democrats had been buying Escape hybrids, two right-wing Republicans had Priuses. Their choices appear to have been personal, rather than political. Kansas Senator Sam Brownback’s views on energy and environment might be associated more closely with supporters of the current president than with his own base. “I consume too much,” said Brownback, who had recently read the book, Serve God, Save the Planet, an evangelical take on environmentalism. “I’m trying to reduce my CO2 emissions. As a Republican I look at these things as matters of personal responsibility.”
The Brownback fleet, most of which resides at his home in Topeka, actually includes two hybrids, a 2007 Prius and a 2006 Civic. Brownback daughters have asserted squatters rights on both, said Brownback, who has five children. The rest of the fleet includes two older, non-hybrid Hondas, a ‘97 Taurus, which is the only car Brownback keeps in Washington, rarely using it since the Senate is a short walk from his DC apartment, and his wife’s 2005 Chrysler Town and Country.
While Brownback’s choice of hybrids was a matter of planetary stewardship, for the now retired Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo, it was purely expedient. “I can drive [alone] in the HOV [high occupancy vehicle] lane,” he said, a critical advantage for those who must commute from the Virginia suburbs over the Potomac river to Capitol Hill.
Thus, Tancredo viewed the Prius with a certain detachment. It “goes like a banshee,” he exclaimed, adding that he was not surprised that the son of another presidential candidate, Al Gore Jr., had been pulled over in a Prius while exceeding 100 mph. On the other hand, “it’s a little like driving a tin can on wheels in terms of the ride and the noise,” he said. So for longer distances he preferred the 2000 Cadillac De Ville.
Most politicians end up compromising themselves somewhat uncomfortably, suppressing their true personalities, in order to project a particular image. Others are so well integrated that the political and the personal appear to merge seamlessly. “I don’t drive, I navigate,” Rudy Giuliani, the take-no-prisoners former New York mayor, said while he was running for president. But a Cadillac Escalade had been spotted idling at Giuliani events, waiting for The Man. The message is clear, said Clotaire Rapaille, a cultural anthropologist and marketing expert who has consulted with GM, Ford, DaimlerChrysler, Citroen, and a slew of non-automotive global companies. “I’m the boss. I’m bigger than you,” he said.
And Cleveland, OH Congressman Dennis Kucinich who is in many ways Giuliani’s opposite, appears unbowed by his tenure on Capitol Hill. “I’m an unassuming kind of guy,” he said. He still lives in the working class house in Cleveland which he bought in 1971 for $22,500. He’s a vegan And he is driving his second Ford Focus
But Kucinich has been a crusader at least since he was the youngest mayor of a major US city-Cleveland-at age 31, where he resisted intense pressure from the business establishment to sell the municipal utility, reportedly saving the city millions of dollars. Kucinich wears his crusades for American workers and cars on what may look to outsiders like his hairshirt, but which probably feels more like silk to him. “My first priority was to get a union-made American car,” he said of the Focuses. Only his alert mind saved him from hecho en Mexico. Kucinich’s brother, Gary, of John Lance Ford, in Westlake, outside of Cleveland, had practically completed the purchasing paperwork for the current purchase when Kucinich asked him to check the VIN to make sure the car was made in the U.S. It wasn’t. So Dennis made poor Gary find a domestically made Focus and redo the paperwork. It’s tough when your brother is such an idealist.
Yet, Kucinich might appear as self-indulgent as any Fortune 500 CEO in one sphere of his life. Peter Sagal, host of National Public Radio’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me!,” recently described Kucinich’s third and current wife this way on the program, to the great delight of the studio audience: “Elizabeth… is six inches taller than he is, 31 years younger than he is, and a hundred times hotter.”
And you’d think a hot lady would want a hot car, I said to Kucinich. But Elizabeth is down with the Focus, said Kucinich. “She’s not somebody who puts a premium on external appearances. She’s very practical.” But she did insist the little blippetydoo should be red.
The rest of the former candidates’ cars appear to have been purely personal choices. Three of them have notable cars. Vice President Joseph Biden has a 1967 Corvette, which his father gave him as a wedding gift. Along with an ‘04 or ‘05 Lincoln Town Car-he’s not sure which-and a ‘95 F150 and a ‘96 Le Sabre, all showroom demonstrators, Congressman Ron Paul of Lake Jackson, TX, still has a 1978 Chevette that played a bit part in political history. During the 1979 gas crisis, Paul, a doctor who specialized in obstetrics/gynecology and delivered more than 4,000 babies before going into politics, parked the little econobox next to Democratic House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill’s limo, with a sign saying, “Guess who has to wait in line for gasoline?”
“I think they actually struck some money from my district as punishment,” Paul told me, bemusedly. Paul said his wife won’t let him junk the car.
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has a 1962 Rambler American, a diminutive economy car that is a legacy of his father, George Romney, who ran American Motors in the latter ‘50s and early ‘60s, before he ran for President. Romney senior was at least 40 years ahead of his time in championing fuel economy, and it was he who labeled the finned land yachts of his day “dinosaurs.”
But by the look of the rest of Mitt Romney’s stable, he clearly isn’t under his father’s influence. His personal car is a 2005 4.6 liter V-8 Mustang GT convertible with a stick, a birthday present from his wife, Ann, who had noticed hubby and one of their five sons checking out original Mustangs on Ebay on a weekly basis. Ann drives a V-8 Cadillac SRX crossover, and the Romneys also have a 2002 Silverado. Romney said his philosophy, unlike his father’s, has always been “to get the big engine.”
The Romneys also had the Mitt Mobile, the campaign bus, parked in their driveway next to the garage. That is how I was able to find the Romneys’ house in Belmont, after having been told by a friend what street they lived on, after I lost touch with the press secretary when Romney dropped out of the race. (The Romneys have since moved.)
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and his wife, Janet have a pickup truck and an SUV. The primary vehicle is the 2007 Chevy Tahoe, and the second car is the ‘95 Silverado, with nearly 200,000 miles on the clock. The Silverado is a recent hand-me-down from a Huckabee son. “Normally, you give your kids your cars, but in our case, we took one from him,” said Huckabee. The choices, again, are purely practical-for hauling the bass boat, hunting with his dogs, and in former days, hauling the progeny-all five of them–on road trips. (For some reason, a lot of presidential candidates seemed to have five children.) For the last 25 years, the Huckabees have had mostly Suburbans and Tahoes.
One might think there’d be a sports car in the mix, given that Janet Huckabee is an adrenalin junky. She races on a dirt track outside Little Rock in an annual charity fundraiser, “driving to win,” says Huckabee. She also jumps out of airplanes and traps bears, among other pursuits. But she’s too tall to fit comfortably in a sports car, says her husband.
Just how much of a difference would a car make to a candidate’s electability, anyway? Symbols can be pretty important, although probably not in the recent election, what with the economy then tanking while Americans were dying in Iraq, presidential scholar Robert Dallek told me. Nonetheless, having a puissant car might have helped Obama in the primaries, given the unfavorable comparisons of his testicular fortitude with that of his chief rival, Hillary Clinton, Dallek, an Obama supporter, agreed, when informed of Obama’s politically motivated trade-in. Said Dallek: “It probably would have said, hey, he’s macho.”
In retrospect, disappointed supporters might view Obama’s switcheroo as a harbinger of their frustrations. Lyndon Johnson, the oft-crude, arm-twisting 35th President, probably would have laughed at Barack and Hillary in their Escape Hybrids. Johnson drove Lincolns.
What would Abraham Lincoln drive?