Whistle-stop tour fires up Clinton for Chicago Train ride to convention 'is my idea of heaven,' the president says

Democratic Convention

Campaign 1996

August 27, 1996|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

ARLINGTON, Ohio -- He's sunburned, he's running late, he's getting hoarse and the heat is so intense even hardy Midwesterners are dropping like flies right in the middle of his speeches. Yet President Clinton looks like he's having the time of his life.

"This is my idea of heaven!" Clinton told White House press secretary Mike McCurry. "He loves the romance and the history of it," McCurry said. "So do I."

There is something mystical about trains and presidents and as he snakes his way toward Chicago, Clinton -- and those who come to see him -- are falling under the spell.

"I'm glad to see these people. And the main thing I like is they're full of hope," Clinton said after shaking hands for 45 minutes, until he soaked through his shirt. "They're full of hope and energy and optimism."

So are the president and his traveling companions, who boarded a train in Huntington, W.Va., Sunday as part of a tried-and-true campaign gimmick -- the "whistle-stop" tour -- and have decided that they never want to get off. Clinton even joked about mothballing Air Force One.

The president's train is dubbed the "21st Century Express," but it's no express the president is riding in, it's a luxury car, driven at a speed that allows the president to wave to the thousands of well-wishers lining the tracks in Kentucky and rural Ohio.

Yesterday, as his train meandered through the lush cornfields of central Ohio on Conrail's "Toledo Branch" freight line and through towns like Marysville and Ridgeway and Kenton, the president stood out on the back platform, sometimes accompanied by daughter Chelsea, watching the country pass behind him.

Holding a hand-microphone, the president greeted surprised Ohioans who'd parked beside the tracks hoping for, at most, a glimpse of the president.

"Hi. How are you?" the president shouted. "Hi! Hi!" To one man, he added, "Nice dog."

At one point, he was so engrossed in what he was doing that he didn't notice his train had picked up speed and he lurched backward into a reporter.

Everyone seemed to know this was no ordinary train. At country crossroads, local police officers and deputy sheriffs snapped to attention, then saluted as the president rolled by. High school football practice in one small town came to an abrupt halt as the train approached and players waved enthusiastically.

This is really the planes, trains and automobiles trip. The president flew on Air Force One to Huntington and he has motorcaded in his limo to hotels and sites of local speeches. But it is the train that has fired Clinton's imagination. The president has shown every guest -- in his plush 1930-vintage railroad car -- pictures of Harry S. Truman, the president most often associated with whistle-stop campaigning.

Trains seem to bring out special feelings in well-wishers, too.

"People like the historical feel," said Joe Lockhart, a spokesman for the Clinton-Gore campaign. "And there's something else. We are literally coming through their backyards. They can get a lawn chair, go out back and here comes the president of the United States passing by, on a train, coming within 10 feet of them."

Perhaps because presidential train trips bring to mind a more genteel age -- the kind described nostalgically by Republican Bob Dole in San Diego -- in Arlington, even the hecklers were polite.

Diana Cobb, a 44-year-old Republican, stood quietly in the crowd of 4,000 holding her Dole-Kemp sign and listening to the president speak. Clinton's fans showed good form, too: The crowd stood without complaint in plus-90 degree heat for three hours waiting for the train to arrive.

When it did, Clinton rewarded them by leading the crowd in "Happy Birthday" to a 98-year-old local woman named Retta Lafaun Plott. Afterward, when she looked a little shaky in the heat, the president whispered to her that it has been a long time since he made a woman swoon.

The first day, the heat was so intense in Huntington and Ashland, Ky., that emergency crews hauled dozens of faint Democrats on stretchers. Informed of this, Clinton donned his medical hat the second day, urging members of one audience to come up front for bottled water if any of them needed to.

The mother of a 9-year-old boy who received a bottle was so excited by the gift that she said she would write the president's name on it -- and keep it forever.

Pub Date: 8/27/96

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