Lifestyle

Politicians in Drive


What a candidate drives can reveal as much about their views as their campaign speeches

Can motors get the voters? While most citizens choose their candidates for reasons ranging from party loyalty to hair color, few pollsters are paying much attention to one of the political campaign's minor yet most symbolically packed tools: the candidate's car.

For example, nothing says "I'm just a regular fellow" like a pickup truck. Alternately, an aspiring office holder will be sure to win more than a few votes by being seen tooling around in a hybrid. Elected officials, especially Presidents, are expected to be ferried around in long black limousines, flags fluttering and sirens wailing. And, unless they want to be tarred with an elitist brush, no savvy pol would be caught dead driving a fancy foreign car. (Unless, of course, they are New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The iconoclastic billionaire's 2001 Lexus was stolen in October.)

But what they drive and, more important, what they are seen driving are almost as important as their views on stem-cell research and Iraq. During the 2000 election, George W. Bush cast himself as a man of the people, not a Washington insider, thanks to numerous brush-clearing photo ops, aided no less by rugged American pickups. And, throughout his Presidency, he's kept going back to his Crawford (Tex.) ranch, maintaining his image along with the property.

Pickups and Hybrids

Pickup trucks certainly aren't exclusive to Republicans, though. Democrat Jon Tester—in a tight Senate race with the GOP's Conrad Burns in Montana—has sent a revival message loud and clear about his farming background, tinkering under the hood of his old truck while on the campaign trail.

Of course, once in Washington a strategically placed car can also make an impact. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic minority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, told Time magazine late last year that she'd had more than enough of her gas-guzzling SUV. Security officials have yet to find a security-enhanced hybrid for the leader, but they say something's in the works.

Former President Bill Clinton accepted delivery of a specially customized Mercury Mariner hybrid as part of a publicity agreement between Ford Motor (F) and his Clinton Climate Initiative. Customized touches include bucket seats in the back, rather than the traditional bench seats, to accommodate a fold-out writing desk. A refrigerator in the back and individual DVD players for back-seat passengers, as well as some classified security alterations, round out the package.

Clean Energy Credentials

But sometimes stunts can backfire like an old jalopy. Republican Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert proved this last April in an accidental auto gaffe caught on film by the Associated Press. Shortly after leaving a renewable-energy news conference, Hastert bolted from a brightly colored hydrogen-fueled car for the safer confines of a black, oil-burning SUV.

However, clean energy isn't for Democrats only. Arnold Schwarzenegger campaigned in California's special election for governor as a different kind of politician, a different kind of Republican. A smart move, no doubt, given his former outsize Hollywood lifestyle, which included a fleet of politically incorrect Hummers. Last month, Schwarzenegger committed California to building a "hydrogen highway"—essentially, a highway with hydrogen-equipped filling stations—and he gassed up the first clean-burning version of the Hummer to much public fanfare.

And cars can also play a role in the occasional political scandal, as well. In May, Rhode Island Representative Patrick Kennedy, son of Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, crashed his Ford Mustang into a barricade on Capitol Hill, an incident that opened up a string of questions about his long-term struggle with addiction. It didn't help much that three weeks earlier he'd been involved in a car crash in a pharmacy parking lot.

Vella is a reporter for BusinessWeek.com in New York.

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