Still on the road, sans candidate; FOR THE RECORD


It became perhaps the most famous bus in U.S. political history, a rolling 45-foot caldron of intrigue that nevertheless came to symbolize the self-styled new openness of its most famous passenger.

Within weeks it was dubbed the "Straight Talk Express," and the public was treated to endless footage on the 11 o'clock news of its occupant, presidential candidate John McCain, holding court with the media from a plush, overstuffed chair in the back.

These days, the Arizona senator's campaign exists in a state of suspended animation.

But the "executive coach" that became the Straight Talk Express lives on -- minus the senator's famous overstuffed chair -- at a Columbus, Ohio, bus interior manufacturing facility.

"It came home and we took the lettering off it and it's still in use," said Custom Coach Corp.'s leasing coordinator, Patty Jackson.

Yet judging by recent events, the old Express still retains a measure of glamour and notoriety.

Last week, for example, Bloomberg News Service leased the customized bus to ferry its employees to the White House Correspondents Dinner, where it was ogled, presumably with much envy, by members of other news organizations attending the soiree.

(Although Jackson declined to say how much Bloomberg News paid for the privilege, she said Custom Coach's standard leasing fee is around $1,200 a day, which includes fuel and a driver.)

Meanwhile, Todd Harris, a spokesman for the McCain campaign, said he'd heard that soul diva Aretha Franklin was about to buy or lease the McCain bus.

But according to Jackson, Franklin is interested in a different bus. Custom Coach, which has been in business for 45 years, is no stranger to celebrity customers. It has sold buses to, among others, Pittsburgh Steelers star running back Jerome "The Bus" Bettis and broadcaster (and famous fearful flier) John Madden.

New customized coaches, Jackson said, sell for around $850,000.

When McCain was using it, the Express was fully appointed with sofas, a dinette, a kitchenette with microwave oven, refrigerator and sink, and a full bathroom.

It also came equipped for the rigors of a national political campaign, with two TVs, VCRs, a fax machine and satellite phone system.

While Custom Coach has been manufacturing and leasing buses to political campaigns for years, the McCain coach's few months of fame were a welcome, if totally unexpected, development at the plant.

"To have this bus actually named the Straight Talk Express and recognized as that, yeah, that was a surprise," Jackson said.

As for the luxurious red leather recliner that McCain was so often pictured in? It's accompanied the man who would be president into the sunset. The Express' driver, Greg Price, who still drives for Custom Coach, removed it and presented it to McCain as a keepsake.

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