The Nation's Pulse

The Pickup Artist

About that special bond between pickup trucks and their drivers.

By 2.3.10

After "the people's seat," the most memorable line from the Massachusetts Senate race came when Scott Brown took umbrage at President Obama's disparaging comments about his truck: "Mr. President, you can criticize my record, you can talk about the positions I have, but don't ever start criticizing my truck."

As in all campaigns, there was a surfeit of throwaway lines, but truck lines are always keepers. Brown's retort was more evidence of the continuing importance of cultural artifacts like the pickup, which the Republican candidate made one of the focal points of his campaign -- even endowing his GMC Canyon with Hollywoodesque star power. "I love this old truck, it's brought me closer to the people of this state," Brown said in a popular television commercial. One result was that Canyon sales have soared as high as Brown's poll numbers.

So when President Obama came to Massachusetts in the 11th hour of the campaign, and said Brown's "truck may not get you where you want to go," it caused one wag to quip: "Like Teddy Kennedy's car?" Meanwhile, television host Neil Cavuto excoriated the president for "badmouthing" a "hardcore" truck made by one of the companies he had recently rescued with taxpayer money.

All of this came after Sen. John Kerry had warmed up the Prius and Volvo-owning crowd with more anti-pickup rhetoric: "I've got news for you, Scott: George Bush drove a truck, too, and look where it got us." Probably not something you want to say to a substantial and loyal percentage of the voting public. (That special bond between pickups and their drivers was mirrored in a 2009 poll of truck owners, of whom 64 percent said their truck is a reflection of their personality.)

Sen. Kerry was right about one thing: George W. Bush did indeed tool around his Crawford ranch in a "Texas Cadillac," a white Ford F-250, not infrequently with Tony Blair or Vladimir Putin riding shotgun, and doubtless a cooler of Lone Stars on the seat between them.

No wonder some Republicans and Independents believe pickup truck ownership is a prerequisite for good leadership. Sen. Fred Thompson once charged his Democratic opponent was out of touch because he hadn't "spent enough time in a pickup truck."

OUT-OF-TOUCH CYNICS maintain the pickup is a symbol of male virility, or a lack thereof, though, in fact, pickups are the automotive equivalent of the old workhorse or mule. Our neighbors' pickups come equipped with truck bed rail-to-rail toolboxes. Often the beds are full of engine parts, scrap metal, or firewood. In other words, they are used to haul things. I am reminded of the scene from the movie Paper Moon when the flim-flam man, played by Ryan O'Neal, is fleeing the cops and attempts to swap his fancy roadster for an old rusted pickup. What good is a car, the yokels ask, when you "can't haul nothing with it?"

The pickup's place in American cultural history is noteworthy, in particular its supporting role in a number of iconic films. Who can forget the pickup-driving crackers in Easy Rider who send the hippies Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda to hell? Or the old pickup Sonny and Dewayne take on a road trip to Mexico in The Last Picture Show? Country music would be even more depressing without the pickup. Imagine Tom T. Hall's bittersweet classic "Pamela Brown" without the lines: "I guess the guy she married was the best part of my luck. She dug him 'cause he drove a pickup truck"? Or the Steve Goodman/David Allen Coe hit "You Never Even Called Me By My Name," where the ex-con narrator pulls out all the country clichés, including driving his pickup to the train station to meet his mother, only to find that she'd "got runned over by a damned old train." As for great American literature, there is novelist Larry Brown's entire oeuvre, while Michael Perry's idyllic Truck: A Love Story is an inspirational tale of midlife crisis, late-blooming love, deer-hunting, farming, country music, Roland Barthes, and, if that weren't enough, restoring a 1951 International Harvester pickup.

Just who gets credit for creating the first pickup remains a matter of conjecture and intense drink-fueled debate. The top contenders are Gottlieb Daimler (1896) and Henry Ford (1900). Of course, few American pickup owners want to accept that a foreigner invented the pickup, but upon further consideration one remembers that Germans also invented beer and the world's best acoustic guitars, and what good would a pickup truck be without beer and guitars? I say, we let the Krauts have it: when you drive an American-made pickup you can afford to be generous.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.