By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Now, David believes, we're at a crucial "tipping point" in the SUV debate, that the heated national discussion, propelled by the war in Iraq, will soon boil over into action — and tangible changes in public policy. "It all started at our press conference," David says of the morning they unveiled their TV campaign. The ads did ignite an already present undercurrent of SUV resentment and set into motion a wave of anti-SUV sentiment. The Evangelical Environmental Network's quasi-religious testament "What would Jesus Drive?," for instance, has been absorbed into our lexicon like a memorable Saturday Night Livepunch line. "It has not let up," David says. "Lawrence Bender just called me from Mexico — he's doing a movie there with Quentin Tarantino. He turned on CNN in his room the other night, and there were two stories back-to-back about it. There's a lot going on, it's all good."
"Laurie was definitely the key person who helped me connect the dots in terms of the car I was driving and what it was doing to the environment," says Huffington. "There's no dividing line between her personal life and her children and her marriage and her causes — it's just all part of who she is."
My first interview with David, over a tuna tartare lunch, unfolds like an episode of Curb: I'm waiting at the only Sushi Roku I know of — a power-lunch spot in Beverly Hills — and David's settled in at the Sushi Roku in Santa Monica. But then the plot threads start to come together: As we wait out this classic mishap, I spot my first hybrid car — a cute, pug-nosed little vehicle with a quiet (near silent) demeanor. The valet, Carlos, says that whereas this time last year he'd never even seen one, he typically parks two or three hybrids a day now. When I finally join David at the Santa Monica restaurant, where she's been waiting an hour, she is surprisingly friendly and unperturbed by the misunderstanding, full on into drafting a letter on both sides of recycled Post-its.
During lunch, she bombards me with information — press releases, videotapes, a thick binder of clippings tracking the SUV debate. Later, back at the office, the faxes start to come — a steady stream of articles stating what most of us already know, but which can always bear repeating: There are something like 22 million SUVs on the road, and these tippy gas-guzzlers, along with pickups and minivans, account for more than half the sales of new cars in California. Though the U.S. possesses only 3 percent of the world's natural oil reserves, we use 25 percent — 20 million barrels of oil a day, 40 percent of that for cars. Meanwhile, pollution from tailpipe emissions is the number-one contributor to global warming.
But it's more than a global-warming issue, David notes, "it's a national-security issue. These are two of our biggest problems in this country. And here's a solution, guys. You can do something about it. How often in history has a person's personal choice in a vehicle — or personal choice of anything — really been able to effect change? Everyone has to embrace hybrid cars, we have to." The fact that only Honda and Toyota currently produce the gas-electric hybrids, and Bush's much-vaunted hydrogen-powered fuel-cell vehicles are at least two decades from fruition, is a problem. "It's gonna get ugly. We're going to lose the race to Japan — the same way we lost televisions and stereos. It's crazy: To do something patriotic right now, you have to buy a Japanese car."
Three years ago, David traded in her family car, a Lexus, for the first hybrid on the market, Toyota's Prius. Then last year, as soon as they were released, she bought her electric Rav 4, which (unlike hybrids) has to be recharged fairly often but is emissions-free. Like any good new convert, she took to the practice of converting others. And her enthusiasm ä sparked a sort of "environmental chic" domino effect within her A-list Hollywood circle. After persuading Huffington to buy a Prius, husband Larry got two (one for himself and one for the character — Larry David — he plays on TV); Rob Reiner got one because Larry had one, and singer-songwriter Carol King copied Laurie; Howard Gordon, producer of 24, got one because the Davids had one, and so did J.J. Abrams, producer of Alias. "Now they're putting the lead actress, Jennifer Garner, in a Prius on the show," says David. "And we're trying to get it on The Osbournes — to be the car that Jack Osbourne drives."
Meanwhile, in all the confusion, Tom Hanks snagged the last electric Toyota on the market. ("It wasn't embraced," says David. "The electric vehicle is over.") Bill Maher, by the way, will tell you he started the trend: "I started the trend." Regardless, on and on it went. Now, more celebrities have hybrids than lunch reservations at the Ivy — Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz, Brad Pitt, David Duchovny, Ted Danson, David Hyde Pierce, Kurt Russell, Patricia Arquette, Kirk Douglas, Alicia Silverstone, Will Ferrell, among others. No wonder, then, that Toyota Santa Monica has sold more Priuses than any other dealership in the country.