Santorum’s Audi and Other Political Transportation Follies

Rick Santorum’s Audi is the latest in a long line of political transportation kerfuffles, writes Ben Jacobs.

Rick Santorum’s tax returns, released ahead of the crucial Michigan primary, showed a skeleton of sorts in his closet: to wit, an Audi in his garage. While Mitt Romney has also admitted to owning a foreign car in the past decade, either candidate could become the latest political figure to feel the heat for his mode of transportation. Among their predecessors:


In 2011, Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz went after Republicans who opposed President Obama’s bailout of the auto industry, telling members of the press that “if it were up to the candidates for president on the Republican side, we would be driving foreign cars; they would have let the auto industry in America go down the tubes.” However, it turned out that Wasserman-Schultz drove a foreign car herself—complete with her initials on the Infiniti’s vanity plate.


That paled, though, compared to the scorn heaped upon the CEOs of General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler when they flew their private jets to Washington to ask for a $25 billion government loan in 2008. The honchos flew in to make the request—in separate company-owned luxury airplanes. Democratic Congressman Brad Sherman asked the testifying executives to raise their hands if they planned to sell their jets in Washington and fly commercial back to Detroit. None did so. While GM and Chrysler were eventually bailed out, the most memorable line at the hearing of the House Financial Services Committee came from Democrat Gary Ackerman: “It’s almost like seeing a guy show up at the soup kitchen in high hat and tuxedo. It kind of makes you a little bit suspicious.”


This was not the first time that private jets had major policy consequences. One of the reasons cited by then-Speaker Newt Gingrich for shutting down the U.S. government in 1995 was that Bill Clinton made him sit in the back of Air Force One and ignored him when flying to and from the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin. As GOP Congressman Peter King told Capital New York in December “That’s the main reason I think we ended up losing that fight, is because it looked like Newt being petulant.”


Perhaps the highest political price that anyone has paid for their mode of transportation John Kerry in 2004, when his windsurfing hobby helped cost him the presidency. In a devastating ad, footage of Kerry riding the breeze of Nantucket was juxtaposed with hits on his alleged “flip-flopping.” Windsurfing, along with other abilities, like his fluent French, were used to paint the decorated Vietnam veteran as an effete, out-of-touch elitist, helping incumbent George W. Bush eke out a narrow win on Election day.


Of course, controversy over travel is nothing new in American politics. Abraham Lincoln, then an obscure one-term congressman from Illinois, was attacked by Horace Greeley, the powerful editor of the biggest newspaper in the country, the New York Tribune, for padding his expenses in 1848. Greeley blasted Lincoln as one of many congressmen who charged the federal government far more mileage for their journey home than the actual distance, since he’d charged for more than twice the distance than that of the “most direct mail route.” But it turned out that Lincoln was in the right. The most direct mail route was not the one best suited for human travel in a time when railroading was still in its infancy. The circuitous route that Lincoln claimed, via the Great Lakes, was actually the one best suited for passenger travel in the era. If any politician could be trusted not to fudge their mileage, it would be “Honest Abe.”