Frank Williams to the U.S. Senate: What's in YOUR Garage?
In an article this past June, I looked at the disconnect between what some politicians say about automobiles, fuel mileage and the environment, and what they drive. Exhibit A: presidential hopeful Barak Obama. Mr. Obama famously berated the Detroit Economic Club about Motown’s opposition to tighter fuel economy standards– with a Chrysler 300C stashed in his garage. The instant the media exposed this hypocrisy, Obama traded his Hemi-powered luxobarge for the PC pol’s pal: a Ford Escape Hybrid. That got me wondering what our other national leaders might have parked in their garages…
As TTAC’s resident numbers wonk, I was looking forward to tabulating a list of cars that our members of Congress drive. I’d then cross-reference it by party affiliation and auto industry involvement. Just for fun, I’d track down their voting record on issues like fuel economy and emission standards and see how they match up. (Yeah, I know. I need to get a life.) So I wrote a letter to every U.S. Senator, thinking I’d write the members of the House of Representatives at a later date.
I respectfully introduced myself and this website, and explained my request. “I’m working on an article on the personal transportation choices of our national leaders [which] will reveal the automotive taste and style of our most important congressmen and women.” I asked for the make, model and year of the vehicle or vehicles they drive for work, and which cars they own personally (registered both in their own or their spouse’s name). I also asked for their approximate yearly mileage.
After printing 99 letters (this was right after Senator Thomas of Wyoming passed away), licking 99 envelopes and affixing 99 stamps, I dropped the missives in a mailbox and waited. And waited. And waited. A little over three weeks later, I received an email from the “Office of Senator Saxby Chambliss.”
Thank you for contacting me regarding your website. It is good to hear from you.
I am flattered that you have chosen to include me in your article on the personal transportation choices of national leaders. However, because of my public status, I am unable to answer personal questions such as these.
I wish you the best of luck with your article and your website, and if I can ever be of assistance in the future, please do not hesitate to let me know.
I suspect the fact that I’m a Georgia resident– eligible to vote for Senator Chambliss the next time he’s up for reelection– inspired the politician to become the sole exception to Senatorial automotive omerata. I repeat: no other United States Senator deigned to respond to my simple request for information.
Could it be, as Sen. Chambliss’ email implies, that the Senators’ personal transportation is a matter of national security? I can understand a Senator not wanting to identify his/her specific family car because of security concerns, but I didn’t ask for anything that would uniquely identify their vehicle, such as a license plate number or color. Likewise, knowing what kind of car a U.S. Senator leases (or the GSA provides) for “official business” doesn’t exactly sound like NSA-quality information.
In fact, the U.S. Government Printing Office prepares reports on the subject: "Statement of Disbursements of the House" and "Report of the Secretary of the Senate.” They list expenditures– including transportation expenses such as automobile leases– for all members of Congress. However, these reports aren’t posted on line. And the most recent version of the Senate report in the GPO bookstore dates back to 2003. So even though it’s published twice a year, the information isn’t easily accessible to the public.
So what’s with the veil of secrecy over our political employees’ transportation choices? My guess: they don’t want to be “Obama’d.” Given the recent media fascination with fuel conservation, carbon footprints, alternative fuels and the trade deficit, our elected representatives can’t risk the general public finding out that they or their families drive SUVs, gas-guzzling luxobarges or (gasp!) a car produced by a foreign-owned automaker.
It wouldn’t be the first time a member of Congress was caught with their pants down (so to speak) doing something contradictory to what they’ve said on the record. Fool them once? Anyway, it beggars belief that the men and women who are seeking to guide the automotive destiny for tens of millions of Americans, who will write the laws that will control the fate of one of our most important industries, would shrug off any idea of personal accountability.
I’ve decided not to write the members of the House; I don’t want spend $170 on postage to be ignored again. If any of you know what your federal reps drive, please post it in a comment below. In the meantime I’ll keep digging.
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The Associated Press, as I recall, did the best it could on this topic, by assigning one of its people to the topic. Sorry to say, I didn't print it out or download it to the hard drive. But my memory seems to recall a key thing, that you could perhaps verify with a phone call. Senator Lindsey Graham, a noted Republican representing North Carolina (could be wrong about that - from memory), owns a Volkswgen type 181, more commonly known as "The Thing," exported to the States, circa 1973-'74. If it wasn't Graham, I am certain that it was some Republican; since the AP took great glea in noting that only a Republican owned a Volkswagen of any sort (and it was the last paragraph in the article). On some other relevant points raised earlier by others: Bill Clinton bought the 1966 Ford Mustang six-cylinder, convertible) that is now in a museum somewhere in Arkansas, from his half-brother Roger, who at the time of purchase, was in debt, owing to a drug problem he was confronting with drug treatment. I still have a photo, clipped from a newspaper, showing then President Clinton being driven in the car at a national Mustang meet, somewhere in the SE portion of the U.S. I don't believe he himself ever really drove the car, very much - a reason he gave it to the museum. Today, the ex-president reportedly is whisked around by Secret Service agents in a Mercury Mariner hybrid (source, Auto Notes portion of Parts & People, sometime last year). Yes, Colin Powell is a big Volvo buff, still owns some and used to dabble in what is generally called "curb-stoning," the practice of buying cars, fixing them up and parking them by your home (on the curb) and selling them. He talks about that, and many other things, in his interesting biography, "My American Journey." One of the best stories in there is how he was trying to milk the gas tank of some old crock of a Volvo he'd gotten to run; yet ran out of gas on a turnpike in Washington D.C. Some kind stranger - perhaps recognizing him - helped him out. It was mentioned in the NY Times, when he retired from public service in January, 2005, that he'd bought himself a new Chevrolet Corvette, something he said he'd always wanted, to celebrate. In an interview more recently with Modern Maturity magazine (the magazine for members of the AARP, American Association of Retired Persons), one question was about his interest in Volvos. He had some fun with that and said now he was more keen on Corvettes and still had that one he bought, over two years ago. With all due respect, most politicians being attorneys, are not the most imaginative of people (just look at the dearth of ideas in the current crop of presidential candidates, save the off-beat doctor from Texas, Ron Paul). So their vehicular choices would indeed lean towards luxobarges or huge SUVs, just as most attorneys and others of more wealth than creativity.
hitguy will apperciate this. A college buddy of mine was doing grad work at Columbia back in 01-02, when the AlGoracle was in depression over quitting the presidency. He was 'teaching' a class at Columbia, which for those that aren't familiar is an Ivy league school, essentially pedestrian only campus, in Harlem, NYC. Unlike every other student, teacher, worker, & visitor, the AlGoracle was driven straight to his classroom, with a stretch TC limo parked over the grass right in front of the building. Because he conned the secret service into giving him extra protection, they would block off pedestrian access through most of the campus for security. So it forced everyone else at Columbia to walk around the outside perimeter of campus (you know, in Harlem in winter) to get their respective classes, rather than through campus.