The return of campaign season means the buses are back, as presidential hopefuls ditch their blazers and roll up their shirtsleeves to partake in the decades-old tradition of campaigning on the road. Most years, the buses themselves don’t get much attention—they’re simply the vehicles for their candidates’ messages. But that all changed last week, when Senator John McCain dissed the President's campaign bus on the Senate floor.
On a three-day road trip through Virginia and North Carolina to promote his American Jobs Act, President Obama traversed the countryside in Ground Force One, a sleek black motorcoach loaded with more technology than an Apple store. McCain took offense to the bus’s origin—the vehicle’s shell and chassis was purchased from a Canadian manufacturer and customized in Nashville—but he also critiqued its visual appeal.
“I’ve never seen an uglier bus than the Canadian one he’s traveling around on—a Canadian bus touting American jobs," McCain said, according to ABC News. He later tweeted the same sentiment, writing, “That ugly, Canadian-built, taxpayer-funded bus is an insult to the Straight Talk Express!”
While pointing out “un-American” behavior is a common tactic for politicians, they’re generally not looked to for artistic critiques. In any introductory design class, McCain would have been required to share specific criticisms, but not on the Senate floor.
Like any design element of a political campaign, a candidate’s bus is important for how it represents the candidate himself: For a time, the bus becomes the symbol of an entire political ecosystem. "The bubble is what surrounds the traveling road show of any presidential campaign,” Washington Post reporter David Maraniss wrote after the 1992 campaign. "It includes the candidate, the staff, the press, the plane, the bus and all the electronic gear of the 20th-century hustle … yet it is not so much a tangible phenomenon as a metaphysical one, a way of looking at things."
Yet the tangible presence of these massive coaches cannot be denied: As they roll into small towns across the country, they risk becoming overwhelming and obtrusive to residents. In her account of following John Edwards on his 2003 bus tour, journalist Alexandra Pelosi noted the reactions of the locals. “That thing is bigger than our house,” the old man in overalls said to his wife. “How on earth is he going to park it?” a shopkeeper wondered as the behemoth rolled into town blasting John Cougar Mellencamp’s hit song “Small Town.” “We don’t have room for that kind of thing in our town.” The bus damaged Edwards’ attempts to sell himself as the everyman: At a dinner in Iowa, Pelosi wrote, “Edwards tried to bond with the crowd with a critique of Bush’s pro-rich policies that discriminate against ‘people like us.’ But he was having a hard time getting people’s attention because many of them were still staring out the window at that larger-than-life-size bus.”
Presidential campaigning went mobile when Franklin Roosevelt pioneered the whistle-stop tour, a succession of stops at railroad stations at which the president would deliver a speech from the enclosed platform on the back the train. U.S. Car No. 1 had all the comforts of a home, with multiple bedrooms and bathrooms, a dining room, and an observation lounge. As railroad use dwindled in the second half of the 20th century, buses took their place as the campaign vehicle of choice.
Since then, buses haven’t changed much, aside from the addition of WiFi and, importantly, advancements in adhesive vinyl that allow any vehicle to be wrapped in one massive decal. According to market analysts ARD Ventures, bus wraps debuted in 1993, when SuperGraphics Inc. swathed a motorcoach in Crystal Pepsi advertisements, but the decals didn’t go mainstream until 2000. The aesthetic difference is dramatic: The 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign bus looks like a plain Jane next to Sarah Palin’s full-color coach, complete with flying eagle and liberty bell.
Perhaps no candidate has used the campaign bus to greater effect than McCain, whose “Straight Talk Express” bus was a key part of the strategy in his 2000 and 2008 campaigns. With its name plainly emblazoned on its sides, dotted by a simple white star, the Straight Talk shares a similar body style to President Obama’s Ground Force One. McCain invited journalists on the bus to sit and chat for hours, earning widespread praise for his openness.
But in an era where the simple, elegant designs of companies like Apple are championed, McCain’s criticism of Ground Force One seems out-of-date. Despite its imposing volume, the president’s bus is elegant, especially considering that, as a government-owned entity, it is legally required to be void of decoration. Like a little black dress, the sleek, simple curves and dark monochromatic hues of Obama’s bus will always be in style.
On the Republican side, buses seem to represent their candidates more than ever—particularly Ron Paul’s yellow school bus, which was donated and decorated by a group of supporters after the candidate announced he would forgo a campaign bus. But there’s bad news for whoever wins the nomination: He’ll have to trade in his personalized coach for Ground Force One’s identical plain black twin.