“High and Mighty”: On or Off-Track? by Joseph Szczesny (12/30/2002)
Are SUVs unpatriotic? Or have anti-ute critics crossed the line? Speak out in the TCC Forums!
Is there a pattern here? An ironic leftist twist on Hillary's famous "vast RIGHT-wing conspiracy?”
During the North American International Auto Show preview last week, stories broke in the dailies about a series of "public interest" TV commercials attacking SUVs for being both unpatriotic and actually aiding Iraq and Al-Qaeda. A new activist group calling itself The Detroit Project headed by political columnist and TV personality Arianna Huffington is peddling the ads, which some stations refuse to air.
Right up front, I'll repeat that I think SUVs are faddish and mostly bought by people who don't need them for utility. Old-fashioned station wagons would fill the needs of most of them just fine.
Drumbeat against SUVs
However, it seems to me the attacks on SUVs increasingly fit a pattern. Let's review the drumbeat, and you tell me if I'm hearing strange voices.
Item One: Not too long after Keith Bradsher, former Detroit bureau chief for the New York Times, moved to Michigan in 1996 from the Times' Washington bureau, he began writing stories attacking SUVs. He claims the impetus came from an editor in New York. The curious thing is, the anecdotes cited in his stories seemingly were all generated in the Potomac area. His diatribes seemed to me more like plaintiff lawyers' briefs than reportorial journalism.
Having been exposed to what old timers in Detroit auto writing circles called "parachute journalists," I wondered if Bradsher hadn't formed his opinions about SUVs inside the Beltway first and then sought the Detroit bureau slot to reinforce his crusade from the Times' bully pulpit.
Bradsher's main thesis was that SUVs were unsafe because the popular SUVs of the time -- primarily from the old Big Three of Detroit -- were based on trucks and thus had truck frames under them. Truck frames, he wrote, were dangerous because they were stiff and therefore had a ramming effect on other vehicles, especially smaller passenger cars, when they met in a collision. He also argued that SUVs were higher than cars -- a function of their four-wheel-drives and off-road higher clearance -- and thus "overrode" the frames and bumpers of passenger cars, increasing the likelihood of harm to the car passengers. Plus there was the old rollover propensity charge. Sure read like a one-sided adversarial brief to me.
Item Two: Fast forward to late August of 2002, when the Washington advocacy group Union of Concerned Scientists claimed trucks (translation: SUVs) could be made 30 percent more fuel-efficient overnight at no appreciable cost. As I wrote in a Sept. 22 TCC critique (Gas Guzzlers: Beltway Boogeyman?, 9/23/2002), the claim was based on creation of "paper cars," best-balling theoretical gains, and related to ongoing Congressional hearings concerned with proposed SUV fuel economy regs. I restrained myself from commenting the group should have labeled itself Union of Concerned POLITICAL Scientists, especially since few of its staffers appear to have scientific credentials.
Item Three: Heralded by a well-oiled media campaign by a publisher specializing in "public issues," Bradsher's book High and Mighty - SUVs: The World's Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way, hit the bookstores in September. Somehow I wasn't surprised that the book had appeared on the heels of Bradsher's earlier NYT stories. It wasn't the first time a journalist from the East had chuted into Detroit, wrote nasty stories, poured the clippings into a book, and then departed the scene.
Item Four: About the same time, as I noted in TCC in September, leftist cartoonist Gary Trudeau was castigating SUVs in his political comic strip.
Item Five: In her October 22 syndicated column, Arianna Huffington first put forth her theme that buying an SUV was tantamount to, in her words, "Building a nuclear bomb for Saddam Hussein" and "Buying weapons that will kill American soldiers, Marines and sailors." She then described SUV-attack TV commercials being put together by some of here liberal chic Hollywood pals. Oddly, Huffington's syndicate describes her as a "proactive CONSERVATIVE spokeswoman." Who was it that said politics makes strange bedfellows? She sure ain't conservative in my book.
Item Six: On November 20, a group of clergy folks identifying themselves as the National Religious Partnership for the Environment arrived in Detroit to preach “What Would Jesus Drive?” in meetings with auto execs. The campaign was directed at, surprise, SUVs, and wheeled in via Toyota Prius hybrids driven by nuns. It generated a large number of mostly skeptical and often humorous editorial columns and comments. The most thoughtful answer to WWJD was an extended-wheelbase passenger van, decidedly uneconomical, to carry the 12 apostles.
Item Seven: On November 26, amidst many other lavish reviews by the usual suspects, Bradsher's book was praised in his own Times. The reviewer, a journalism professor in New York City rather than an automotive expert, described the book as "marvelously told" and intoned that "the SUV is a vehicle of aggression, a machine to menace other people with."
Item Eight: In December, recognizing that potential jurors now were properly primed with anti-SUV vitriol, a Richmond, Va., plaintiff's attorney sued Ford Motor Company for the alleged unsafe design of an Explorer which T-boned a Jaguar. Presumably taking his brief right from Bradsher's book -- or was it the other way around? -- the suit, according to news reports, claimed the Explorer's frame design was the cause of injury to his client.
Item Nine: Also in December, an op-ed piece credited to Robert "Sundance Kid" Redford appeared, at least in California newspapers, the essence of which is summarized by its headline, "The Highest Patriotism Lies in Weaning U.S. From Fossil Fuels." As the alternative, Redford suggested solar power, in which he was said to be "involved" (as an investor?). To be fair, he didn't mention SUVs, but the patriotism issue was smack on the table.
Item Ten: On January 8 in Los Angeles, Huffington's Detroit Project announced its anti-SUV TV campaign, to air around the country Sunday night during the Detroit auto show's opening weekend. And in her syndicated column distributed January 9 from Detroit, Huffington fired off another round, headlined "Road Outrage: How Corporate Greed and Political Corruption Paved the Way for the SUV Explosion." That's funny, all along I thought it was just the suburban soccer moms one-upping one another.
In the column she states, "Cars powered by a combination of gas and electricity have been around since 1905." Again, that's funny, I've been writing about cars since 1954, or about half the intervening years, and the first gas-electric hybrids I ever heard of as "being around" were the Prius and the Honda Insight of very recent vintage. True, my Standard Catalogue of American Cars shows that there WAS a car called the Gas-au-lec produced in Peabody, Massachusetts, in 1905-06. Only four were built. To paraphrase another personality, "It depends on the meaning of 'been around.'" Maybe Huff should fire her researchers and editorial assistants.
The goods on Arianna
Huffington, according to the biog on her Web site, is a native of Greece who holds a masters in economics from Cambridge (U.K., not Harvard), has authored books ranging from The Female Woman in 1974 to How to Overthrow the Government in 2000, and is a frequent talk-show personality in addition to her newspaper column. She has homes, it said, in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. Hmmm.
The Detroit Free Press reported that such Hollywood types as producers Norman Lear and Steve Bing and comedian and director Larry David are bankrolling Huffington's anti-SUV campaign. Prime-time TV commercials are mucho expensive.
So what's wrong with telling people they should drive a Prius instead of a Hummer? For one thing, only airhead Hollywood types would equate the two. Any car nut knows they are hardly interchangeable, even if capable of hauling only four adult passengers each.
The real catch in the hybrids on the market so far is that they really don't get much better fuel economy than their gas-only siblings such as the Toyota Echo. Yes, the Prius and Honda Hybrid are fascinating cars to drive with their impressive technology but I suspect, if they were priced according to cost like others in the marketplace, their present attraction -- also a fad -- might fade fast.
For another thing, if Hollywood and Washington REALLY are concerned with fossil fuel dependence, why aren't they campaigning for improved traffic light timing, removal of unnecessary lights and stop signs and other easily corrected impairments to real world efficiency of operation OUTSIDE the vehicle.
Untold millions of gallons of fuel are wasted daily by cars, trucks and SUVs idling away or having to stop and then re-accelerate -- with accompanying extra emissions -- from poorly engineered traffic signals, signs and regulations. With such a campaign, our "we know better than you what is best for you" elitists would really have motorists behind them.