Auto Hearing Becomes Reality TV

From driving to Washington to eating at Quiznos, the Big Three's plea for aid seems like a reality TV show, but it could become a real-life tragedy for those in the industry.

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Big men drove small cars on a road trip to Washington to beg for billions and billions of taxpayers' dollars. They rotated driving duties, ate at Quiznos, and -- presumably -- used public restrooms like the rest of us.

Sound like a not-so-funny reality show? It was. But it's no game for millions of ordinary Americans whose way of life depends on the outcome. For them, it could be a real-life tragedy.

The participants were executives of Detroit's Big Three U.S. car companies. Their sought-after prize: $34 billion in public aid for their beleaguered industry.

To help their chances, they made a very humble and public 500-plus mile drive of shame from the Motor City to Washington for congressional hearings Thursday and Friday.

It was both showbiz and serious business. The auto barons were not about to give lawmakers an opening to send them home with nothing but the disdain they received two weeks ago for begging after flying in high style.

So both lawmakers and their supplicants stayed in character as the world watched.

The cramped journey by compact. The rejection of millions of dollars in bonuses. The pledge to collect salaries of $1. The corporate jets, gone.

It was all part of a message: We get it now, symbolism matters.

Whether they get what they came for is still unclear. Polls show a majority of people opposes an industry bailout or a loan or a rescue.

"Are you planning to drive back?" one senator, Alabama Republican Richard Shelby, asked the panel of witnesses at the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing.

The industry's top men were only too happy to share details of their itineraries.

"Yes, sir. And I did have a colleague ride and we rotated," reported Chrysler's chief executive, Robert Nardelli. "Left Tuesday night and drove until midnight and then got up at 5:30 the next morning and drove the rest of the way in and we did rotate and I do plan to drive (back)."

Shelby turned to Ford's Alan Mulally.

"What about you?"

"We carpooled," Mulally replied, pledging to drive back to Detroit.

Shelby clarified that the Ford and Chrysler execs did not carpool together. No, Mulally confirmed, they did not.

"OK. What about you?" Shelby asked G. Richard Wagoner Jr. of General Motors.

"I drove with a colleague. We split it up about 50/50. We drove down yesterday and I'm going to drive (back) myself Friday or Saturday," he answered.

Riveting testimony with the future of the industry at stake.

"Where'd you (stay)? What did you eat?" teased the committee chairman, Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn.

For the record, Dodd drives a Ford Escape, but is considering buying a $35,000 Chevy Tahoe because he has two children.

Shelby has driven from his million-dollar home in Tuscaloosa, Ala., to work in Washington.

In a Mercedes.

"It's an old one. I've had it for years," Shelby said.

Mercedez-Benz employs 4,000 people in the Tuscaloosa area.

Associated Press writer Ken Thomas contributed to this report.

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