When the U.S. Secret Service decided to order two custom-made buses, including the one that transported President Obama through the upper Midwest this week, they had a specific model in mind.
The service, which has been transporting protectees by bus since Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign, wanted a particular model only available from the Quebec-based manufacturer Prevost.
“The vehicle had to support the weight of security and communication equipment that we had,” Ed Donovan, a spokesman for the Secret Service, said in an interview. “Our understanding was that that was the only model that could do it.”
In the past, the Secret Service leased buses for presidential travel, but had to retrofit them to add security measures and enhanced communications capability. Then the buses would have to be stripped again – “at great expense” White House spokesman Jay Carney noted – once they were no longer needed.
The monstrous, shimmering black buses cost the service $1.1 million each.
The bus sports large, black impenetrable windows and flashing blue and red lights like a police cruiser. It has been almost as big an attraction as the president himself during his back roads tour of the upper Midwest. Impossible to miss, People point at it. Kids gape at it. And just about everyone is curious about it. It has even prompted comparisons to Darth Vader’s helmet.
On Tuesday alone, the bus traveled 216 miles.
It has also attracted another kind of attention: Republicans can’t stop bringing up the cost of the bus, making it sound like the vehicle is a six-wheeled boondoggle. In the new age of austerity, a million-dollar-bus is an irresistible target – especially one that was not built in the U.S.
“This is an outrage that the taxpayers of this country would have to foot the bill so that the campaigner-in-chief can run around in his Canadian bus and act as if he is interested in creating jobs in our country,” the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus, said Tuesday.
Other conservatives were snarkier. Wrote Dana Loesch, a “tea party” activist and CNN contributor, on Twitter on Tuesday, “Nothing says ‘Let’s tour America and talk about jobs!’ than a big, black, hearse mobile of doom.”
President George W. Bush used a bus from the same manufacturer, Quebec-based Prevost, for a spring 2004 “Yes, America Can” campaign tour through the Midwest.
“We’ve been overdue for having an asset like this in our fleet of protective vehicles,” Donovan said, adding that leasing buses is “not inexpensive – that costs tens of thousands of dollars a month…. Designing our own vehicle really gives us a level of security that we couldn’t achieve by doing it the other way.”
The second bus will be used eventually by the Republican presidential nominee.
Kim Geiger in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.