Candidates take to the railways

WAY BACK WHEN

Presidential stops recall golden days on campaign trail

August 07, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Senator John F. Kerry and his running mate, Senator John Edwards, left Boston after the Democratic National Convention last week for a cross-country campaign swing by bus and train to press the flesh and state their case to the public.

On Thursday in St. Louis, they swapped their bus for the opulence of Georgia 300, a privately owned former office car used by railroad officials that sleeps 10 and once operated on the Georgia Railroad.

Built by the Pullman Co. shops in 1930 as the 10 section-lounge General Polk, it was later converted to an office car after being acquired by the Georgia Railroad. It was retired from service in 1982.

If candidates Kerry and Edwards and their wives felt slightly cramped by the confines of a bus, then the deep-blue Georgia represents gracious living as defined by old-world mahogany and oak luxury.

Aboard the car - which has been used by Presidents Carter, Bush and Clinton - is a master bedroom and two additional bedrooms, two showers, an area off the dining room that seats two comfortably, and a dining room that can accommodate up to eight. Meals are prepared and served from a forward galley.

Toward the rear of the car is an observation room and an open rear platform from which to make appearances and speeches at campaign stops. The car is equipped with a television and a VCR, and there are provisions for terminal and cellular telephone service.

The candidates rolled out of the former St. Louis Union Station - a Romanesque pile that opened in 1894, and for years was the largest and busiest railroad station in the world before closing in 1978 - and embarked on a grand ritual, the whistle-stop campaign that once was a staple of American politics.

Times have changed. Today, campaigns travel the country quickly by airplane to large population centers rather than roll through the countryside aboard a train for days on end.

Kerry and Edwards stood waving from a rear observation platform draped in red, white and blue bunting that bracketed a lighted drumhead with the words: "Believe in America Tour." The tour ends Monday in Kingman, Ariz.

Today, most citizens form their impressions of candidates from the media rather than from trackside as a candidate intones a message from the back of a campaign special.

The first U.S. presidential candidate to campaign by rail was William Henry Harrison in 1836, and it wasn't until the turn of the last century that the campaign special came into its own. Candidates such as William McKinley, William Jennings Bryan and Theodore Roosevelt fielded fully equipped trains.

Not only did they have room for the candidate's entourage but also the reporters who followed along and dropped off dispatches that were then wired to their newspapers by Western Union telegraphers.

Bob Withers, a reporter and expert on presidential and campaign rail travel, wrote in his 1996 book, The President Travels by Train: Politics and Pullmans, that Franklin D. Roosevelt, a devotee of rail travel, especially the trains of the Baltimore & Ohio, racked up an amazing 243,827 miles during his 12 years in the White House.

President Truman, another rail fan, traveled 77,170 miles while in office. He liked to roll along at 80 mph, riding in the locomotive cab, holding the throttle and pulling the whistle cord for grade crossings.

During the 1948 campaign, Truman took a 31,700-mile rail odyssey aboard a 17-car train, giving 356 "Give 'em Hell" speeches from Lock Haven, Pa., to Sparks, Nev., and from Merced, Calif., to Taunton, Mass.

This was the year The New York Times declared Republican Thomas E. Dewey's election a "foregone conclusion."

But while Truman's vitality caught the attention of the American public on the campaign trail, Dewey appeared wooden and stuffy.

Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Theodore Roosevelt's outspoken daughter, observed that Dewey "looked like the man on a wedding cake."

Dewey proved losing one's temper can mean losing votes.

When his campaign train ground to a halt in Beaucoup, Ill., for a water stop, the train started drifting backward toward the crowd gathered around the last car.

"That's the first lunatic I've had for an engineer," Dewey told the crowd. "He probably ought to be shot at sunrise, but I guess we can let him off because no one was hurt."

"The Democrats inflated the remark and said it proved Dewey was unfeeling and hostile to the working man," wrote Withers.

New York Times reporter James Reston wrote: "And then the train pulled out of the station with a little jerk."

Truman seized the moment, claiming that the nation's railroaders were Democrats.

"Dewey objects to having engineers back up. He doesn't mention that under the great engineer, Hoover, we backed up into the worst depression in history," he said.

A month later, Truman was elected president.

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