Wednesday, March 25, 2015

“Talking Pickup Truck Blues”: Senator Miller’s Defense of an American Icon

During his political career, Zell Miller often drew inspiration from his love for music and his Appalachian roots to make a political point. A prime example transpired during his term in the U.S. Senate when, in protest of rising fuel economy standards and the consequently rising cost of pickup trucks, he combined both strategies, writing a song with musician friend Cowboy Jack Clement called "The Talking Pickup Truck Blues".

The situation was this: for the 2002 Energy Bill, Congress was debating raising CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards. The idea was to reduce foreign oil dependence and promote environmental well-being by requiring better fuel economy. Pickup trucks were grouped together with SUVs and vans as vehicles that got poor gas mileage. Miller leapt to their defense through the Miller-Gramm Amendment, which prohibited increasing CAFE for pickups over the then-current 20.7 miles per gallon standard. He and Clement got imaginative and wrote "The Talking Pickup Truck Blues" to highlight what he saw as out-of-touch D.C. confusing the working vehicle of America's heartland with fancy SUVs.

Jack Clement (left) and Zell Miller (right), in the early 1990s.
(Source: Series VI. Box 7, Folder 83)
Miller's defense of pickups came in two different forms. The first mixed rural pride and the economy. In a floor statement he said the pickup was "the very symbol of the working man. As the pickup goes, so goes the working man and the very heart of this country….The pickup is for the man who wants to work, who gets his hands dirty, and if he can't afford his pickup, then farms, construction companies, and rural small businesses will go under, hurting the American people and the American economy.”

The other defense appealed to the politicians' own self-interest. Miller characterized pickup truck owners as “pickup pops,” in contrast to soccer moms, an arguably powerful voting demographic. The tailgate of a pickup, as Miller saw it, was the “think tank of rural America,” with men gathering at the end of a hard day's work to discuss all manner of affairs. Miller warned that if D.C. raised the price of those trucks, the full force of that group would be devoted to ousting all current politicians from their seats.

Miller made a floor statement on March 6, 2002 in support of his amendment using both arguments and even quoting from his song (listen to a clip of the quoted verse). He ended with the last line of the song: "So help us Lord, and let there be a little wisdom in D.C."  Whether it was concern for the heartland, the economy, their jobs, or divine intervention that convinced the senators, his amendment passed (56 for, 44 against) and the pickup was safe for now.

Zell Miller's senatorial papers were recently processed and are open for research at the Russell Library.

Pickup truck with "Zell Miller for Governor '94" sign.
(source: Series VI., Box 11, Folder 
Post by Adriane Hanson, Digital Curation and Processing Archivist, Russell Library 

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