Be honest: Who wouldn't like a car and driver?

Imagine yourself leaning back in the leather-cushioned seat, oblivious to the traffic surrounding you. Imagine being picked up in the morning and dropped off at night, reading or making calls or even napping while the rest of the world sits cursing the "expressway" and everyone else on it. Imagine never hunting for parking, never getting a ticket, never sweating over a self-serve gas pump.

Inside the Beltway, it's the ultimate perk: practical, luxurious, a universal symbol of power. Outside, it's an easy target: the four-wheel embodiment of all Seven Deadly Sins, especially Pride and Avarice.

In other words: unsafe at any speed.

Consider former FBI director William Sessions, fired Monday by the president after the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility accused him of ethics lapses. Topping the list are charges, which Sessions has denied, that he used government vehicles for personal trips and allowed his wife, Alice, to use official cars for trips to her hairdresser, dressmaker and shopping.

And so Washington, like an addict, is once again trying to kick the limo habit. On Feb. 10, Bill Clinton signed an executive memorandum on the use of government vehicles, which he called a privilege designed to "facilitate the efficient operation" of government and provide security to key employees. "In the past, however, this privilege has been abused by certain executive branch officials and has come to exemplify a Government out of touch with the American people."

In five paragraphs, Clinton ordered virtually all White House and executive branch employees to give up use of cars for home-to-office travel. In addition, Office of Management and Budget director Leon Panetta has ordered a 50 percent cut of all executive cars.

In this city, the president sets the tone and everybody else plays Follow the Leader. So even the private sector, which just a few years ago proudly swept around town in cool, black sedans, has adopted a "don't ride, don't tell" policy.

Fewer cars and drivers equal a more exclusive perk. Which means, of course, more power for those who manage to hang onto one. Welcome to Car Wars, 1993.

Time Equals Power

The White House and government departments each have a pool of cars and drivers to ferry officials from the office to Capitol Hill hearings and other appointments during the business day. Too important to stand on a corner and hail a cab, too busy with crucial meetings, too valuable to waste precious minutes and energy not working, hundreds of VBPs (Very Busy People) are authorized to use fleet cars. Time equals power in Washington.

"This is nothing but an ego trip," sniffs former senator William Proxmire, a lifelong critic of the subsidized limo. "It makes them feel like a big shot. If you want to save time, take the Metro."

On April 19, Panetta wrote: "As American taxpayers are being asked to make a contribution to reducing the deficit it is imperative that we not spend their hard-earned tax dollars in ways that may appear to be improper."

How many tax dollars is hard to determine exactly, but an unofficial OMB estimate last year had federal executives spending $5.7 million for 288 cars and 190 drivers. Panetta has ordered a full inventory of all executive motor vehicles nationwide and has asked for a 50 percent reduction by Sept. 30.

But most senior officials still have to drive themselves to and from the office. The mega-perk, available to a select few, is "portal-to-portal." Technically speaking, portal-to-portal simply allows a government employee to drive an official vehicle home at night and back to work in the morning. But on the highest levels, the cars -- a Lincoln Town Car, Mercury Grand Marquis or Cadillac Fleetwood -- come with a driver at beck and call, who arrives at the residence every morning and whisks the lucky passenger to the office, drops off and picks up for every business-related occasion, and then drops the VIP back on his doorstep at night.

(To duplicate this perk, the average taxpayer, by the way, would have to shell out $25,000 -- the average salary of a government driver -- plus the cost of leasing a luxury car, gas, maintenance, insurance, not to mention Social Security taxes.)

In 1986, Congress passed Public Law 99-550, which spells out exactly who gets home-to-work privileges. The president and the vice president and their families are provided round-the-clock drivers for security reasons.

The law authorizes the president to give six Executive Office employees and 10 additional federal agency employees home-to-work transportation. But Clinton cut it down to three "for compelling national security reasons": Mack McLarty, chief of staff; Anthony Lake, assistant to the president for national security affairs; and Sandy Berger, deputy assistant to the president for national security affairs.

Even McLarty, however, says he rarely indulges, preferring to drive his own Ford from his Kalorama home to West Executive Drive. McLarty uses the fleet cars to travel to meetings throughout the day, but climbs back behind the wheel for the trip home.

"All of us are creatures of habit," he says. "I have driven myself to work lo these many years. I use it to collect my thoughts. I've done that for 25 years, and so it seems natural to continue doing that."

Who else gets portal-to-portal?:

The 16 Cabinet secretaries as well as the U.S. Trade Representative and OMB director (although last year, as the election campaign heated up, Dick Darman announced he was giving up round-the-clock service, saying he would "ordinarily drive myself").

Although the law allows each of these Level I executives to grant portal-to-portal to one deputy, Clinton's memorandum wiped out that perk, calling it "not appropriate" absent "security or operational requirements." The only exception thus far is Deputy Secretary of State Clifford R. Wharton Jr.

U.S. ambassadors and consular officers abroad.

The deputy secretary of defense, undersecretaries of defense, secretaries of the Air Force, Army and Navy, Joint Chiefs of Staff and commandant of the Coast Guard.

The directors of the CIA and FBI.

Other high-security government employees, such as the head of Strategic Forces Command (the person in charge of nuclear weapons) and the head of the White House Communications Agency (the person who keeps the president connected to everybody).

The chairman of the Federal Reserve.

The comptroller general and the postmaster general.

"Ninety-five percent of the time, I drive my own car," says Comptroller Charles Bowsher. "The mood of the country has moved away from people using that, so I don't for appearances' sake."

Limo Life, Part 1

When Judge William Webster moved from St. Louis to head the FBI in 1978, he was assigned an agent as his bodyguard and driver for security reasons. He stayed at the FBI for nine years, then went over to the CIA for four more years, where he also was protected with a car and driver.

When he finally left government service in 1991, his personal car, a 1985 BMW, had only 8,000 miles on it. "I'm the original old lady who went to church on Sunday."

"I like to drive," he says. "My wife doesn't think I'm very good at it. What I hadn't really dealt with was parking. I found out even that was manageable if you took along a lot of money."

Navigating was the real problem. Even though Webster always sat in the front seat ("I'm from the Middle West"), he spent the commute from his Bethesda home buried in morning briefing papers. He vaguely knew where things were in Washington; he just didn't know how to get from place to place. Behind the wheel for the first time in 14 years, he got lost. A lot.

"I'm somewhere," he would say to his wife over the car phone. "How do I get there?"

In the past two years, Webster has become an urban explorer, braving taxicabs and even the Metro system. On his first Metro trip, he went to Chinatown. "I had to make a transfer," he says. "That was the exciting thing."

Car Trouble

Savings and loan scandals are complicated and hard to understand. Limo abuse is something the average voter can easily grasp. That's why John Sununu was political history after he took his White House car and driver to New York for a stamp auction. The former chief of staff hotly defended his action, saying he was "always doing official business" and needed 24-hour secure communications access to the president.

Not a bad argument, except he sent the car back to Washington empty and flew home on a corporate jet.

Cars and drivers are perhaps the most public display of power, and always the most vulnerable. In 1953 -- "Officials Urged to Ride Trolleys" -- Budget Director Joseph Dodge directed all government agencies to report their minimum requirements for cars and chauffeurs. Ten years later, President Johnson issued orders cutting chauffeurs and luxury sedans by 75 percent -- from 491 to 134 -- but the demand was all but ignored.

When Proxmire began his battle against portal-to-portal in 1973, he estimated that 800 federal officials -- including military officers -- were being chauffeured in government vehicles. Jimmy Carter campaigned against government limos and hired his cousin Hugh ("Cousin Cheap") to enforce the perkicide -- but his Cabinet still rode in the back seat. Then came the stretch-happy Reagan administration. Attorney General William French Smith resigned amid allegations that his wife, Jean, illegally used his car and driver; Don Regan, on the other hand, claimed his wife's use was "in line" with policy. In 1986, Congress discovered more than half of 128 officials receiving portal-to-portal perks were abusing the system and updated a 1946 law by specifically naming who was entitled to chauffeured cars.

Then came Sununu. And Sessions. Both were absolutely entitled to a round-the-clock car and driver for official purposes. Both were pilloried for using the cars for personal reasons.

"There's tremendous resistance against reform because a car and driver usually becomes an internal symbol of power," says Charlie Peters, editor of Washington Monthly. The danger, says Peters is that such luxuries create a class of people who can become out of touch. "With the self-pity that comes with service at the top of government and the long hours, you begin to think these perks are your due."

More Cars, More Drivers

Bad: A congressman spotted with a 21-year-old blonde. Worse: A congressman bouncing checks. Deadly: A congressman saying, "Home, James."

No one on the Hill brags about a car and driver. That's not to say junior staffers don't spend most of their time shuttling their bosses around Washington, but that doesn't seem to annoy voters, even if it's on the taxpayer's nickel.

Only the top leadership are assigned cars and drivers:

In the House, Speaker Tom Foley (D-Wash.), Majority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) and Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.). "However, he's the only one in the leadership who does not have a Capitol Hill policeman as a driver," says Missi Tessier, Michel's press secretary. "The driver is paid out of the office payroll."

Both House whips, Rep. David E. Bonior (D-Mich.) and Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), have stopped using cars and drivers -- Bonior when he became whip in 1991, and Gingrich last year when he gave up a Lincoln Town Car and driver. "He takes cabs," says spokesman Tony Blankley. "He walks."

In the Senate, President Pro Tem Robert Byrd (D-W. Va.), Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine), Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), Majority Whip Wendell Ford (D-Ky.) -- although an office spokeswoman says Ford drives his personal car to and from work -- and Minority Whip Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.).

Over at the Supreme Court, the Chief Justice and the associate justices are offered portal-to-portal for security reasons, although a court spokesman says most typically drive themselves.

Limo Life, Part 2

"During last week's sizzle, standing on a street corner hoping the next cab was air-conditioned was a degree of reality that I didn't enjoy at all," says Julian Scheer. "I arrived at every meeting late, sweaty, and in a less than perfect frame of mind. They ask me: 'What do you miss most about corporate America?' And the answer is: 'Just getting here.' "

For 17 years, Scheer was senior vice president for LTV, a steel, energy and defense contractor. For 14 of those years he had a car and driver, a perk he negotiated after three years of battling traffic from his home in distant Warrenton, Va.

His driver, who also worked as a mail clerk, picked Scheer up between 6 and 7 a.m. and dropped him off at home about 8 p.m. During the rest of the day, the car could be used by anybody in the LTV office to go to meetings on the Hill and elsewhere.

Scheer used the hour commute in and out of the District to return calls, sign documents and read. "I had zero aggravation." He calculates having a driver added at least two hours to his workday and "probably extended my workweek by 30 percent... . To me, it made great practical sense. The company thought it was money well spent."

There were occasional critics. "At various times, people thought it was a symbol of corporate fat," says Scheer. "I translated it into a symbol of corporate efficiency." And he always sat in front, never in back. "I never felt like I was chauffeured around. I felt like I was being driven." The distinction is subtle but important. "One seems to connote privilege. The front seat seems to connote practicality."

Scheer recently retired from LTV and works at his own consulting firm three days a week. "I'm driving myself now, but I'm driving after and before rush hour."

Limo Denial

Of course, there are still plenty of chauffeured cars floating around the rest of Washington. Problem is, hardly anyone wants to talk about them.

"In this town, it's regarded as a bit pretentious," says one Washington lawyer.

There are all those ambassadors, of course: the British envoy in a green Jaguar, the Japanese (in a gesture of goodwill) in a Lincoln Town Car. And all the District government cars, led by Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly's dark blue Lincoln. (How many District cars and drivers are there? Like the federal government, accounting is a little vague. But the chairman of the City Council and the superintendent of schools both have them; the police and fire chiefs are driven by officers. Everyone else supposedly drives their own cars.)

But the private sector, which once lined up limos three-deep in front of Maison Blanche, has taken a lower profile since 1985, when former Reagan intimate turned lobbyist Mike Deaver was photographed for the cover of Time magazine sitting in the back seat of a limousine, phone in hand, under the headline "Who's This Man Calling?" No matter that the limo was rented -- the shot represented everything unsettling about influence-peddling Washington, and helped destroy Deaver's career.

Who better to discuss cars and drivers?

"To be very honest, I don't think I have much to say," says Deaver. He drives his own car now, but says it's still a powerful symbol in the private sector. "I think if you have a very busy schedule and it means a lot of appointments outside the office, then a car becomes a necessity. But there are a lot of people who use a car because they think people expect it of them."

There are all those lobbyists dashing back and forth from the Hill, of course. And a few Washington aristocrats always emerging from a chauffeured car: Bob Strauss, Jack Kent Cooke, Herbert Haft, Pamela Harriman, Katharine Graham and Clark Clifford.

But Vernon Jordan only uses a car and driver "when necessary and convenient," he says. "It has nothing to do with showing off. It has to do with getting to the airport on time."

"Never!" says longtime political operative Frank Mankiewicz. "I came to Washington in the Peace Corps. I never got over flying tourist or taking cabs. Or walking. Or taking the damn bus."

And talk host Larry King was offered a chauffeur as part of his CNN contract but said no thanks. "The reason is I love driving," he says. "I absolutely love driving!"

Sharon Percy Rockefeller, chief executive officer of WETA, recently suffered cracked ribs when her car was struck by a tree uprooted during a thunderstorm. The accident occurred, according to news reports, as Rockefeller "was being driven home from work."

No surprise there: Rockefellers and chauffeurs go together like champagne and caviar. They can, after all, afford it. But just try to ask her about the joys of limo life.

"It's a private car that she pays for personally," said Jan Du Plain, WETA spokeswoman. "Therefore she prefers not to discuss any of the particulars."

Jack Valenti, on the other hand, has a car and driver on staff and is happy to talk about it. Of course, Hollywood's chief spokesman is always happy to talk about most anything.

"I think without it, it's a waste of people's time," he says. "Why should you have an executive stand and try to flag a cab? Is that a practical and efficient use of their time?"

All presidents, say Valenti, deal in what he calls "fake symbolism." Carter wore sweaters and carried his own luggage. Clinton cuts portal-to-portal. As far as the budget goes, it barely registers, but "it's shorthand for a theme he wants to sound: 'I am not going to waste your money.' "

Of course, there are appearances to consider. "I would never use a limo or one of those Mercedes 600s or a stretch. I think that's a little ostentatious." Valenti's driven around in a Cadillac Seville sedan, "a smallish little Cadillac, but it's a damn nice car."

The real ultimate perk, he says, is a private plane. Valenti still flies commercial, just like the hoi polloi.

"When I'm standing in that shuttle line carrying my own luggage, I keep in touch pretty well," says Valenti.