Pick a symbol carefully, Senator; they bite

Much of politics is symbolic.

So which symbol is worse: Detroit 3 CEOs flying corporate jets to Washington to beg for loans, or Jim Bunning, Republican senator from Kentucky and former Detroit Tiger star, rushing from his vote to kill the auto loans to sell his autograph at $55 a pop to Detroiters?

Mind you, we’re not talking about the merits of either case. This is about symbolism, the shorthand of politics, a snapshot of complexity.

The CEOs of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler got hammered for flying three corporate jets from Detroit to Washington to say their companies were too broke to survive without a loan from taxpayers.

Nothing they could say – that company policies required them to fly that way for security or that they had been too busy trying to save their companies to spend a day driving each way – made any difference. Really, who can resist the irony of beggars on corporate jets?

And nothing Bunning might say in his own defense will suffice. That he scheduled this trip months ago when it looked certain to fall during a Congressional recess? That as the Tiger’s star pitcher for years, he is popular in Detroit?

Doesn’t matter. Symbols are powerful.

Today, his critics in Motown don’t see the lanky fastballer in a 1960s Tiger uniform. All they see is the Republican senator from a state with a giant Toyota manufacturing complex who voted late Thursday to kill what may be Detroit’s last hope, then hopped a plane to Detroit to supplement his $169,300 Senate salary hawking autographs.

If Bunning actually shows up at noon today in suburban Detroit (about 90 minutes away as I write this), there’s no way he can avoid looking like a guy who knifed Detroit, then frisked the body for loose coins.

The Detroit 3 certainly regret the jets. Is Bunning clever enough to cancel the signing session?

An update: We'll never know if Bunning knew enough to stay out of Detroit this week. Gibraltar Trade Center President Jim Koester yanked the contract just hours after Bunning cast his Senate vote, the Detroit Free Press reported online.

“Being a business owner in Michigan for over 30 years, I simply cannot support anyone who, in my opinion, votes against the economic well-being of our great state,” Koester said in a statement.

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