"Take it away, Johnny."
With that intro, the big fella grabs the mike and starts belting out a Ronnie Milsap tune--a cappella. "Smoky Mountain Rain." Sounds a lot like Ronnie Milsap. Except this warbler's name is Johnny Williams of Pike Road, Ala.
He's Steve Forbes's bus driver.
"I messed up the CD," Williams apologizes, "so I had to sing it. Whatever it takes."
It's the day before the Iowa straw poll, the Republican Party's fund-raiser/festival/presidential beauty contest. And Williams is simply part of the warm-up act in which Forbes aides are trying to entice a roomful of Iowans to come to the Forbes tents, eat some barbecue, listen to Milsap and cast a vote for the magazine millionaire.
"He doesn't just give you the bus," explains Forbes's campaign manager, Bill Dal Col. "He really gets into it."
Calling Johnny Williams a bus driver is like calling Wolfgang Puck a cook. Williams is the dean of Republican campaign bus drivers, the Roadway Impresario. His motto should be: We've got more than bus.
"We got faxes, satellite phones, computers, copiers, scanners, the whole deal," says Williams. "We got everything you need. All you gotta do is show up with a message."
Williams, 59, runs John L. Productions, a three-bus company anchored in a suburb of Montgomery, Alabama's state capital. He got his start in politics doing advance work for George Wallace's 1982 gubernatorial campaign and has slowly driven and drawled himself into a modern campaign legend. After Wallace, he operated buses for Guy Hunt's 1986 gubernatorial campaign in Alabama. From there, he did buses for Pat Robertson's 1988 presidential campaign. When Robertson folded, Lee Atwater picked him up to do buses for the Bush-Quayle campaign.
A favorite Bush story: In 1988, Williams came back to his bus to find the nominee on his knees, wiping up a spilled Pepsi. "I said, 'Well, do you do windows, too?' And he just busted out laughing." Soon word began to spread that Johnny Williams was the man for bus tours. New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman signed him up for her '93 campaign and again in '97. Texas Gov. George W. Bush tapped him for his '94 campaign and again in '98. Williams has done the Senate campaigns of Paul Coverdell in Georgia, Bill Frist in Tennessee, Jeff Sessions in Alabama and Sam Brownback in Kansas. He drove for Quayle in '92 and for Bob Dole in '96. But hardly ever for a Democrat. Unless you count his day job, where he's special events coordinator for Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman. "I practice on him. I got another year and then I can retire and do this full time."
He's committed to Forbes through the GOP convention. But after that, who knows? If the GOP race keeps heading the way it is now, Williams might be reunited with George W. by next fall. "We're friends with all of them," he says. "I've competed against just about everybody I've worked with. When the general election campaign comes, we're all on the same team."
Right now, he's using two of his three buses--both customized 1980 Motor Coach Industries eight-wheelers. If a campaign needs more buses, Williams leases them. If he needs more drivers, he calls them in. In Ames, George Strait's concert driver, Leroy Eichler, helped him out. It's the Williams system that's most important.
"We kind of have a campaign-in-a-kit," he says. Speakers atop the bus. Speakers that can be placed in an open field and can send sound to a thousand. Electronic "mult boxes" that let the media plug into the sound. "We look at it as kind of like making a movie, except you don't get a chance for a re-take."
The next day, Williams is out at Iowa State University early. It's straw-poll day. He has pulled one of his buses into a grassy area by the Forbes compound of tents and attractions. He is sitting in a folding chair in front of this bus. He looks like an offensive lineman, big hands, big gut. His wife, Brenda, comes over. She often prepares the meals for the campaign brain trust. Forbes likes peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Williams offers a visitor a tour. In the back is a couch where Forbes can take a nap. There's a microwave oven. There's a refrigerator. VHF walkie-talkies. TVs that track CNN from everywhere. A digital camera. That's for shooting behind-the-scenes footage that can later be utilized in campaign commercials. "A lot of people think you get a bus and a bag of ice and you got a bus tour." But it's not that simple.
Williams steps outside for a minute and points to a side panel. A stage unfolds from there so the candidate can make an instant speech. And there, he points, are risers for the media.
"When I pull up at a stop, I'm going to have the sun at the right angle. I'm going to have the right music playing. I'm going to stop at the right place where the candidate can get off and the cameras are rolling. That's what it's all about. You work your butt off for 10 seconds on the news."
And just as he's saying that, he sees Forbes coming his way, surrounded by photographers and TV crews and reporters with notebooks. "Boy, the media is something else," he says. "But hey, it's a lot of fun."