Although many political candidates are easy to recognize, most of the people who keep their campaigns running aren’t. But without them, the political season couldn’t run.
Johnny Williams fits the description to a T. For almost 30 years, Williams has been one of the literal driving forces behind the Republican Party. As the owner and operator of Johnny Williams Bus Charters, he made his living doing bus tours for candidates and issues campaigns. He’s driven candidates for almost every level of government, and could fill entire books with his stories. But he won’t. If you ask him too many questions about the campaigns he’s driven, he’ll laugh and tell you it’s kind of like Vegas: “What happens on the bus, stays on the bus.”
Before Williams drove his first bus tour, he cut his teeth driving 18-wheelers and race cars. In the mid-’80s, he and his wife bought a motor home. “One of my friends was running for office, and I let her use my bus. It helped her out a little bit, but she didn’t win,” he says. But his next campaign did. “We got all excited about that and decided we liked that,” says Williams. “We got a better bus and took it on the road.”
The next year, Williams drove for Pat Robertson’s campaign during the primaries. After Robertson dropped out of the race, George H. W. Bush’s campaign asked Williams to drive. “He won, and the rest of it’s history,” he says. “We just went from one campaign to the other.”
As Williams soon found out, driving presidential candidates came with its own set of challenges.
“The biggest thing was getting used to the Secret Service,” he says. “When you get into the general election, they take over the schedule and the buses and everything like that.” After 9/11, security tightened further. Civilians were no longer allowed to drive presidential candidates – a Secret Service agent took over. “We agreed until we found out that they weren’t so good at driving buses,” he says. “We went back to driving. In fact, I guess I’m the only civilian to ever drive a president. That worked out pretty good.”
Since that first election, Williams’ fleet has grown to 10 buses. Johnny Williams Bus Service became the go-to bus tour service for Republican political candidates. Through it all, Williams credited his wife as his secret weapon. “She really took care of everybody when we were on the bus,” he says. “She could tell you what they drank, what they ate, and she really knew more about them than I did. They would send me home before they’d let her go.” Once their kids started having kids of their own, his wife decided to stay home and raise them.
After his almost 30 years in politics, Williams announced his retirement late this past year. “I had a lot of health issues come up, and I got to evaluating the situation,” he says. “Back in ’94, I had two stents put in my heart. While I was in the hospital then, I had four different campaigns calling me, wanting me to get the bus and go campaign for them. Fob James even sent one of his aides to visit me in the hospital to see if I was going to come work for him!”
“I said look guys, I’m up here in the hospital and I think I might die,” he continues. “You’re talking about bus tours, and I ain’t worried about bus tours. I’m just trying to get well!” He did get well, but in 2015, he had surgery to put in three more stents. He also had two minor strokes, and surgery to implant a pacemaker to make sure he had no more strokes. “I figured I was wearing out and there was no reason to push myself any further,” he says. “It’s been a good run, a good time, and I’ve made a good living out of it.”
Although he’ll miss the work, he’s looking forward to getting a good night’s sleep during the upcoming election season. “When you have three or four buses on the road at one time, you worry about something happening,” he says. “When a bus breaks down on a political campaign, it’s on the headlines the next day. When I go to bed at night during an election season, I won’t lay there with the fear of the phone ringing.”
But every time you ask him what it was like, the answer is the same. “I had a lot of fun,” he says. “I’ve met a lot of good people. Like I’ve said before, I’ve met some heroes, and I’ve met some zeroes. I enjoyed every minute of it. I’m gonna miss it.”
Clair McLafferty is a freelance writer.