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New presidential ride causes a commotion

Republicans criticize the cost and origin of the high-security bus used in President Obama's Midwest tour. The Secret Service defends the $1.1-million vehicle, and says the GOP nominee will use one too.

August 18, 2011|James Oliphant and Kim Geiger

ALPHA, ILL. — The president coming to your hometown is one thing. His arrival in a monstrous shimmering black bus is another.

The Secret Service's new $1.1-million behemoth was almost as big an attraction as the president himself during his back-roads tour of the Midwest. People pointed at it. Children gaped at it. And just about everyone was curious about it.

The bus has been in the works for years. In the past, the Secret Service leased buses for presidential travel, but had to retrofit them to add security measures and enhanced communications. Then the buses would have to be stripped again -- "at great expense," White House spokesman Jay Carney said -- once they were no longer needed.

Obama's bus sports large, impenetrable windows and flashing blue and red lights like a police cruiser. It was impossible to miss, especially as it roared down two-lane highways en route to small towns along the president's three-day tour. On Tuesday alone, the bus traveled 216 miles.

It has also attracted another kind of attention: Republicans can't stop bringing up its cost, making the bus sound like a boondoggle.

In the new age of austerity, a million-dollar bus is an irresistible target -- especially because it was built in Canada rather than in the United States.

"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," Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said Tuesday.

Other conservatives were snarkier. Dana Loesch, a "tea party" activist and CNN contributor, wrote Tuesday on Twitter: "Nothing says, 'Let's tour America and talk about jobs!' than a big, black, hearse mobile of doom."

When the Secret Service decided to order custom-made buses, it wanted a particular model only available from Quebec-based manufacturer Prevost, said Ed Donovan, a spokesman for the agency.

"The vehicle had to support the weight of security and communication equipment that we had," Donovan said in an interview. "Our understanding was that that was the only model that could do it."

Donovan said the Secret Service ordering a custom-built bus gave the agency "a level of security that we couldn't achieve by doing it the other way."

President George W. Bush rode on a bus from the same Canadian manufacturer for a spring 2004 "Yes, America Can" campaign tour through the Midwest.

Donovan said the Secret Service had been using buses since at least 1980, when the agency provided one for President Reagan's travels.

The Secret Service actually ordered two buses like the one Obama used this week. The other is for the eventual Republican presidential nominee.

jim.oliphant@latimes.com

kim.geiger@latimes.com

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