It’s a bird, it’s a plane, no, it’s a senator on a Harley

  One my favorite things about living in the West is driving the winding, two lane roads, if you can survive the sluggish RVs, washouts, rock slides and icy patches. Now, there’s a new traffic hazard -- senators on Harleys.

Even if you don’t live near the mountains, you know our famous roads from automobile commercials on television. They twist along whitewater rivers, slice through desert or soar precipitously over mountain passes. From Lexus to Mercedes, these roads hustle cars.

Some politicians have figured out that these highways are good for selling another product -- that is, their own, highly polished images. Nowadays, it seems politicians cannot get a haircut without consulting a pollster and a flack. So, I should not have been surprised this summer when I attended a meeting of Western governors in Missoula, Mont.

The star of the show turned out to be Dirk Kempthorne, Idaho’s governor and former U.S senator who could eventually be the president’s pick to head the EPA. Kempthorne is a polished politician, but here he was in a rumpled suit and unkempt hair. What’s going on, I wondered? Was the man from Idaho celebrating "casual Friday?"

All was revealed when Kempthorne took the podium. He told us he had ridden his Harley Davidson up from Boise, along U.S. Highway 12, a marvelous if badly patched two-lane that parallels the Lochsa River. The Republican even told us how he’d pulled over to hear the birds chirp along the river. (This, evidently, after he cut the engine, removed his helmet and let his ears stop ringing.) The image was Marlon Brando meets Marlin Perkins.

But when Kempthorne apologized for his ruffled suit, his cover was blown. He said his saddlebags didn’t afford much room. Excuse me? I mean, this is a governor staying in one of Montana’s most expensive hotels. You’re telling me he couldn’t find an iron? Or an aide to pack a regular suitcase?

I had to give Kempthorne’s performance a grudging smile. But my facial muscles were tired by the time I heard about Montana Sen. Max Baucus. The Democrat had a meeting in Glacier National Park, to discuss the deteriorating condition of its Going-to-the-Sun Road. The Sun Road is a multimillion dollar tourist funnel over the Continental Divide, a feat of engineering that seems to defy gravity. Only it doesn’t. Gravity is gradually winning this very expensive fight.

Sen. Baucus seemed to present the image that he was zooming to the rescue, federal checkbook in hand, because how did he arrive? You guessed it -- revving the throttle of his Harley Davidson motorcycle. And, yes, he did tip off the local TV stations before he arrived in town.

Perhaps we can blame Colorado’s Republican Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell for starting all this kerfuffle; he’s the man who cruises the mountain passes of Colorado on a Harley without a brainbucket. Campbell busted his arm in a 1996 crack-up but continues to ride on. He has even been inducted into a "Motorcycle Hall of Fame."

Times have changed since California’s Sen. George Murphy once called bikers "the lowest form of animal," a line some bikers probably employ to describe politicians.

Sure, senators want to look like regular guys, even though most of them are millionaires who wouldn’t know a carburetor from a camshaft. The U.S. Senate is the most elite club in the world, and senators are the consummate insiders, the nation’s establishment figures.

Harley Davidsons, on the other hand, symbolize rebellion and the counter-culture. You don’t see too many Hell’s Angels eating $50 lunches in Georgetown.

Politicians make laws. Rebels break laws. Politicians and Harleys go together like thermal long johns on an August day in the Mojave. Just the idea makes me itch and want to take a shower.

But image is everything in modern politics. Ronald Reagan sometimes blurred the line between the real World War II he avoided and the Hollywood movies that he starred in. Our president spent the Vietnam War in the Texas National Guard, where he bombed armadillos; yet he dons a flight jacket and rides a fighter jet to make a policy speech on the deck of an aircraft carrier.

All politicians -- not just the Western variety -- look for good propaganda. So maybe senators on motorcycles aren’t so bad; they’re merely silly. We know the mundane truth: Politicians spend their days behind desks, not behind handlebars.

Ben Long is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a syndication service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He writes in Kalispell, Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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