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The Thing on the Hill

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Sen. Richard Burr bought two Volkswagen Things as presents for his sons, who laughed at the unique vehicles. Burr drives the 1974 model around Washington, D.C., where it has become a local fixture.

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It’s a minimalist vehicle, and he takes advantage of the options that allow him to get even closer to the open road. He always drives with the convertible top retracted, even during the Washington winters. Sometimes he removes the doors, a feature referred to as the “dune buggy” option in early ads. It’s also a practical decision — the doors tend to swing open when he makes tight turns on humid days. He never wears a seat belt, although the car does have them.

“If I hit something in this car, I want to be thrown as far away from it as possible because, see, the engine is right here,” Burr said, indicating the limited buffer between the driver’s seat and the engine under the hood.

A small dent on the front grill of the Thing reminds Burr of a minor accident.

“I was driving from the House to the Senate one day, and it was right up here at the stoplight when my brakes failed, and there was a group of kids on the sidewalk so I couldn’t turn it over and try to stop it,” he said.

The car crashed into the back of a new Toyota SUV driven by Lisa Myers, a senior investigative correspondent and political analyst for NBC News.

“Needless to say it didn’t do anything to her car,” he said.

It’s obvious that little work has been done on the body of the Thing — its few embellishments are a toy tiger tail hanging from the passenger door and the campaign stickers plastered to the front and rear fenders.

“It’s become the poster child of legislative bumper stickers,” Burr said.

But “billboard” would be a better description. It all started with Rep. John Boehner, long before the Ohio Republican became Speaker.

“He wanted a bumper sticker on the car, and I said, ‘You know that will cost you,’” Burr reminisced.

Boehner asked how much.

“I said $35. All of a sudden, I got a check from his campaign for $35, and I put John Boehner’s sticker on the car,” Burr said. “From that came [Rep.] Tom Latham [R-Iowa] and [Sen.] Saxby Chambliss [R-Ga.], and then it grew into everybody’s billboard.”

The front fender was originally reserved for women, although more generic selections such as “Honk if I’m paying your mortgage” are now tucked among the “Bush Woman” and “Shelley Moore Capito, U.S. Congress” stickers.

The men — “Saxby, U.S. Congress,” “McCain,” “SB41, Scott Brown” — can be found on the rear, where stickers for Boehner and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) are peeling and worn away from the exhaust fumes.

Burr’s own stickers from his House and Senate campaigns are included among them.

But another is more telling: “You have to be real secure to be seen in a car like this.”

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