In 1836, William Henry Harrison was the first presidential candidate to campaign aboard a train, launching a practice of whistle-stop campaigning that allowed candidates to greet and speak with voters in small towns along the way.

One of the most famous presidential railroaders was Harry S. Truman. During his 1948 whistle-stop tour, he traveled more than 28,000 miles and delivered more than 350 speeches. Is whistle-stop campaigning still happening?

We have as our guest today an expert who’s going to fill us in. Edward Segal is one of the few people to organize a modern-day whistle-stop campaign-train tour. He served as a campaign manager, press secretary, and aide to Democratic and Republican presidential and congressional candidates.

Segal is the bestselling author of Crisis Ahead and has written for, the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and other major publications. He has a new called Whistle-Stop Politics: Campaign Trains and the Reporters Who Covered Them.

Here are key points we discussed with Segal:
  1. Tell us about how whistle-stop campaigning was used by political candidates and about your book.
  2. In fact, why did you write it?
  3. How many politicians have campaigned by train?
  4. What lessons could today’s politicians learn from past whistle-stopping candidates?
  5. Given today’s technology, the prevalence of social media, etc., is there any chance that this form of campaigning will regain its popularity?
  6. Can you share some interesting stories from your research about those candidates in days gone by?
  7. How did campaign trains change the outcome of campaigns, such as George McGovern and Bobby Kennedy?
  8. Do you anticipate that whistle-stop campaigning will be used in the 2024 campaign?

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Show Notes

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Show Transcript

Will Whistle Stop Campaigning Stage a Comeback?


[00:00:00] Bob Gatty: In 1836, William Henry Harrison was the first presidential candidate to campaign aboard a train launching a practice of whistle stop campaigning that allowed candidates to greet and speak with voters in small towns along the way. One of the most famous presidential railroaders was Harry S. Truman.

[00:00:22] During his 1948 whistle stop tour, he traveled more than 28, 000 miles and delivered more than 350 speeches. He used the Ferdinand Magellan, a 1928 Pullman car, specially outfitted with armor plate and bullet resistant glass for use by President Franklin d Roosevelt. President Eisenhower was the last Commander-in-chief to use that car, although President Reagan used it during an October, 1984 trip through Western Ohio.

[00:00:58] Is whistle stop campaigning still happening? We have as our guest today an expert who's going to fill us in, so stay with us. 

[00:01:07] Now Edward Segal is one of the few people to organize a modern day whistle stop campaign train tour. He served as a campaign manager, press secretary, and aide to Democratic and Republican presidential and congressional candidates.

[00:01:24] Segal's the best selling author of Crisis Ahead. And has written for Forbes. com, The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and other major publications. He has a new book called Whistle Stop Politics, Campaign Trains and the Reporters Who Covered Them.

[00:01:45] Hey, Edward, thanks so much for being with us on the Lean to the Left podcast. 

[00:01:50] Edward Segal: Great to be with you today, Bob.

[00:01:52] Bob Gatty: Hey, man, tell us a little bit about how whistle stop campaigning was used by political candidates and about your book. 

[00:02:01] Edward Segal: Political campaigning got its start, of course when there was the first election.

[00:02:05] And one of the first presidential candidate to campaign by train was William Henry Harrison in 1836. He didn't win, but it was the first documented situation where a candidate campaigned by train. Of course, he wasn't able to go too far in those days because there simply was not A lot of train tracks, but it really set the tone for the years that came and over the course of the past 185 years or so I've documented hundreds and hundreds of candidates, office holders for office seekers who took advantage of trains and campaigned for office, and that's what my book is all about, dozens of stories about the candidates, the reporters who covered them, what it was like to campaign from a train, to live on a train, to work on a campaign train. And I wrote the book because I think this is an unfortunate fading part of a collective memory, and with each passing generation, people have a tendency to forget a little bit more and more about this important part of American political history.

[00:03:11] Bob Gatty: Okay, can you tell me how many politicians have actually campaigned by train? 

[00:03:16] Edward Segal: I've documented at least 200 and I documented through news clippings over the years Interviews that I did with politicians or staff and reporters Dozens of books that I've combed through in connection with the research. Sometimes these candidates will run for president.

[00:03:34] Sometimes they run for governor, house of representatives, I've even found a couple instances where they ran for local offices, such as mayor, where cities had enough tracks downtown that candidates running for mayor would actually campaign by train very successfully as well. 

[00:03:52] Bob Gatty: That's remarkable. You would never think that a local candidate in a smaller geographical area would do that. 

[00:04:01] Edward Segal: You're absolutely right. And that's one of the benefits of research. Sometimes you never know what you're gonna find. I also came across what apparently was the shortest campaign train trip in American politics.

[00:04:13] It was only about 600 feet. It was waged in 1966 by a political candidate. He was also a well known political trickster at the time. A dick duck. He was running for state senate. in California, and he did a photo op whistle stop on the Angel's Flight Railway in downtown Los Angeles. And the the route of the train is 300 feet up the slopes and 300 feet down the slopes.

[00:04:41] But he took advantage of that, what I call political eye candy, to get the attention of the press. And it worked. There was a nice story about him. The AP ran a photo on a cut line. And news about this photo op whistle stop made a lot of local news and helped him in his campaign.

[00:04:57] He didn't win, of course, but campaigning by train is no guarantee of success. But if you don't try it you'll never know how well it might work for you in a campaign. 

[00:05:08] Bob Gatty: Yeah, what lessons do you think today's politicians can learn from this past whistle stopping candidates? 

[00:05:15] Edward Segal: There's a lot of great lessons today's politicians can learn.

[00:05:18] Number one, go where the people are. That was the benefit of the train. The trains would stop at small and large cities and towns where there was a train depot. That's lesson one, go where the people are. Lesson two, don't talk so much. Keep it short. When politicians campaign by train and their speeches that they made at depots, they would talk for maybe five or ten minutes.

[00:05:41] They're not long speeches, and then the train would pull out and go to the next station. 

[00:05:46] Bob Gatty: So Donald Trump could never do it. hE talks for hours, right? 

[00:05:52] Edward Segal: That's right. It takes a lot of discipline. It doesn't matter how long you can talk. It's a matter of how little you can say and how short you can keep it.

[00:06:00] And that that, that's certainly a skill that dozens of whistle stopping politicians learned and practiced along the way. Another important lesson today. Find and use visuals. There's very few visuals as, as impactful as intention, getting as memorable as a large diesel or steam mode of train pulling into a railroad station and the pomp and the circumstances that also that often accompany these trains.

[00:06:31] Sometimes there were marching bands and cheerleaders and speeches and rah rah. It could be quite a production, quite an undertaking, and usually left quite a a memory in the minds of people who who saw these trains and would pass down these stories generation to generation.

[00:06:48] Bob Gatty: It'd be a pretty big job for staff to prepare for one of those events. Especially if it's going from town to town, because staff would have to prepare for all of the stops, right? And gin up crowds in all those places. 

[00:07:01] Edward Segal: Oh yeah, it can be quite an organizational undertaking.

[00:07:04] I have first hand experience because I actually organized and publicized a campaign train tour for a member of Congress in Oklahoma, and that's what really got me interested in the topic. I did a mini version of what would happen today or happen before with presidential and other candidates.

[00:07:24] Mapping the route, getting the train, planning rallies, coming up with the schedules, getting the right appropriate staff, planning rallies at the train stations, trying to generate news coverage. It was a microcosm of what campaign organizers had to do before I did mine and what they continue to do afterwards.

[00:07:47] Bob Gatty: So you say gin up news coverage. Was that easier because of the train and as you say, the pomp and circumstance and all that. 

[00:07:55] Edward Segal: Oh, yeah. In fact many times, depending upon the campaign and the press that was available, sometimes the news that a presidential campaign train would stop at a local depot would be front page news.

[00:08:09] Sure. And that would be another great way of getting news coverage. And of course, there was great coverage radio television later about what the candidate said. And great visuals of the train pulling up to the station. It was a great way to get the attention of the media and sometimes hundreds or tens of thousands of people would show up at these trackside rallies, depending upon the size of the city and the community and where the train depot was located.

[00:08:37] So it was a great, impactful attention getting. Memorable form of political theater that you rarely see these days. 

[00:08:45] Bob Gatty: Yeah, I saw in doing the research for this episode I saw a video of Ronald Reagan's train trip in which he spoke and it was a huge crowd of people. I was surprised about, I don't know why I was surprised.

[00:09:00] It was Reagan. 

[00:09:02] Edward Segal: He was actually retracing Harry Truman's famous campaign tour in Ohio and he actually used the same train car, the Magellan that Truman and FDR. Had used in their campaigns. It was a great visual, another great instance of political eye candy, and made news around the world.

[00:09:24] Bob Gatty: Yeah, Reagan was a genius at coming up with that kind of stuff, and I guess he probably had staff that was as much of a genius as he was. BUt given today's technology and the prevalence of social media, do you believe there's any chance that this form of campaigning will, come back and become popular again?

[00:09:44] Edward Segal: I certainly hope so. They're not out of fashion yet. Joe Biden, when he ran for president in 2020, he campaigned by train for a few hours. Barack Obama did that in 2008 and as recently as 2022 there was a Senate candidate in Vermont who campaigned by train and and he won his election. Although they're not used as much.

[00:10:11] Or frequently as they had been in the past. They certainly can be a great way to get people's attention. If, of course, the candidate has the time, the money, the effort, the skill the resources, and if he can find a train to rent for whatever it takes to to make the tour happen and be successful.

[00:10:31] Bob Gatty: You say find a train to rent. So you wouldn't just jump on Amtrak and say, okay, this is my campaign train, right? You can't do that, right? You got to have your own train. 

[00:10:45] Edward Segal: Oh, yeah. The train that I my campaign people rented for the the campaign train I did in Oklahoma they rented a a four car configuration.

[00:10:55] It was two locomotives and two cars, and they rented it from Santa Fe Railway. But these days, the options for where you're going to get a train can be quite limited, and Amtrak is usually the Company of choice to go to see if they can use a train, but you're right You just can't show up at a railroad station and say I'm gonna ride the train and campaign. It can take Weeks or sometimes several months to plan and coordinate a successful campaign tour today, 

[00:11:23] Bob Gatty: right?

[00:11:24] So have you got some interesting stories that you can share with us from your research that you did?

[00:11:30] Edward Segal: Yeah, I found a lot of things that were news to me and I think will be news to people who read the book. One of the interesting stories I found was the number of times presidential and other candidates Would allow someone to impersonate them from the back of the train Or as the train was moving through a depot and they would whether it was their aides or sometimes even a reporter or friends or colleagues would impersonate the candidate.

[00:12:01] Usually so the candidate could get some rest and take time out from the campaign trail, but they did not want to disappoint people who would come from miles around to see them as the train passed through their community. William Jennings Bryan had someone stand in for him once.

[00:12:18] Eugene Debs, a socialist candidate. FDR Harry Truman when he was running for for vice president in 1944, even President Eisenhower in 1952. To one degree or another, they all allowed or sometimes encouraged people to impersonate them just so they could take some time off and get some rest.

[00:12:41] Bob Gatty: But didn't people realize that they were seeing a fake? They weren't really seeing a real Candidate. 

[00:12:48] Edward Segal: No. Sometimes I can't in the early part when these candidates were allowed impersonators, the people just did not know what they look like. It was the early days of campaigning. A lot of no television.

[00:13:01] Of course, very few pictures of what the candidates actually look like, so that helped them to pull a fast one. Others, of course, were very well known. Truman, Eisenhower, but the trains would go by so so fast and just a glimpse they were expecting to see that candidate or politician, And so that's exactly what they saw what they thought they saw it, but they didn't; someone impersonated the candidate with their gestures or their mannerisms And they often fell for it and they didn't know any differently 

[00:13:34] Bob Gatty: That's a riot, reminds me of I, one time I had a job, I worked for a Republican Congressman from New Jersey.

[00:13:43] Yeah, I did, I worked for a Republican and he was a liberal Republican though. And he was on a Merchant Marine Fisheries Committee and they had a trip to Alaska that he had to go on. And so there was a debate during his campaign for re election. There was a debate scheduled that should have been between him and his Democratic opponent.

[00:14:06] So he asked me to go and stand in for him. And I, so I had to impersonate him. Although everybody knew it was me not him. Not him. I had a lot more hair than he did, for example, and he was taller and he had a crew cut. Anyway, um, I got my lunch handed to me by the Democratic opponent. He then afterwards, he asked me if he won the election, would I come to work for him?

[00:14:36] So I guess he thought I did a pretty good job. My boss asked me how it went, but he had no. Exactly, because he wasn't there. He was off looking at whales or whatever in the hell was doing. So that was an impersonation a little different from a presidential candidate having somebody impersonate him on a train though.

[00:15:02] It's pretty funny. So how did campaign trains change the outcome of elections like with McGovern and Bobby Kennedy, for example? 

[00:15:13] Edward Segal: Yeah. Sometimes a campaign trains with a tipping point that helped the candidates win. But it was no guarantee, but at least in two instances, I know that it really helped them to win election.

[00:15:26] I actually heard from George McGovern when I asked him about his experience and he wrote back and told me that he thought it was a great way to campaign. He really enjoyed it and he credited his campaign train tours in California. And Nebraska in 1972 for winning those two state primaries, Bobby Kennedy, when he was running for president in 1968, his campaign staff said that the best day of campaigning he had in his short 85 day run for the right White House was on the campaign train in Nebraska and he spoke at 11 stops, talked to tens of thousands of people. So a lot of candidates have really enjoyed it speaking to crowds from the back of trains and sometimes it can be the tipping point to help them win their race. 

[00:16:20] Bob Gatty: Do you think in this age of social media and everything that it still is a viable way to campaign?

[00:16:26] Edward Segal: Oh, yeah because social media is like everything else, every other form of communications, you've got to get people's attention and campaigning by train is a great form of political eye candy that would do just that. Sure. Almost irresistible visual. For mass media, traditional media and people who show up, of course everyone in the world has their camera, right?

[00:16:53] Imagine if they did a campaign train tour today, not only would you have the major media taking pictures, but you'd have everyone at the railroad station who was there pulling out thousands of cameras and posting it on social media. Sure. In one sense, it could be even more effective because of social media than it was ever before. 

[00:17:13] Bob Gatty: Yeah, I could see that. You'd have all these people in the crowd taking pictures of the candidate of the president or whoever it is. And and sharing it all over the world all these people. So you'd be getting a big bang for your buck. I think you wouldn't have to rely on the local newspaper to show up or the local TV . You want them to show up, but all these people with their cell phones, taking videos and taking photos. Yeah, that's free coverage, right? 

[00:17:47] Edward Segal: That's right. That's what it's all about. 

[00:17:49] Bob Gatty: Yeah. Do you think it'll, be used in this 2024 campaign?

[00:17:56] Edward Segal: I really hope so. No matter who's running or what office they're seeking, they're going to have the age old problem of getting attention and having opportunities to tell people why they should be elected. As long as there is a serviceable set of tracks.

[00:18:12] In the region of where they want to run, and they have the time, the money, the resources and the organizational skills that are needed to pull it off. I really hope at least 1 presidential candidate will campaign by train and I hope as they see fit, perhaps a few candidates running for the house or the Senate or the governor's office will consider doing the same.

[00:18:37] Bob Gatty: Yeah, I could see it to be a very viable way for a governor's race or a state, any kind of statewide race. If there are train tracks and most states are all right. 

[00:18:49] Edward Segal: Oh, yeah. And that was the case in in Oklahoma. When I did that train tour. We rented the train from Santa Fe railroad but the tracks actually, as I recall, belonged to Amtrak, but Amtrak had a discontinued service on, it was called the Lone Star route but they gave us permission to run the Santa Fe rail Road configuration on their tracks and the member of Congress I was working for at the time, he made turn that lemon into lemonade and actually when it was campaigning by train made a promise to people that if he was reelected, he would continue his fight to return train service to that area on those same tracks. So that was a great two-fer. 

[00:19:35] Bob Gatty: Yeah, I can see that. And for candidates that are pushing infrastructure improvements, it would be a great visual to use too, wouldn't it?

[00:19:46] Edward Segal: Yeah, for infrastructure they could highlight the importance of restoring or improving or building new bridges and highways, railroad stations whatever the infrastructure needs in that particular community. Yeah, they could use campaign trains as another way to call people's attention to what needs to be done in their area.

[00:20:06] Bob Gatty: For sure. From your book, what are some cool stories you've got to share with us? 

[00:20:12] Edward Segal: There's a lot of stories. I told you earlier about the presidential and other candidates who have allowed people to impersonate them as they were campaigning through their areas, but discrimination was also a big issue in our history and political candidates and their staff and reporters were not immune from what was happening in our society during that time.

[00:20:38] Jimmy Hicks was a black reporter. who was covering the Stevenson campaign in 1952. And when the train pulled into the station at in New Orleans and reporters got off to go to a local hotel to stay for the night, Hicks was because he was black. They would not let him stay in the hotel.

[00:20:58] So that was a sign of the times. But Eisenhower in 1952, campaigning for president, he took the extraordinary step of making sure that reporters Who were black would never have that problem because he had his, the schedule of his train was such that the train never stopped in a segregated city to stay overnight.

[00:21:22] So that was a very sensitive, common sense way to deal with that problem of discrimination.

[00:21:29] Bob Gatty: That's amazing. 

[00:21:30] That really is amazing. Wow. Okay. Have you got anything else you'd like to add?

[00:21:37] Edward Segal: I urge people to take a look at the book because I hope it will rekindle or help educate them about an important part of American political history. The book focuses in not just on a candidate to campaign by train, but also their families their aides the reporters who cover them along the way, and also there's a whole chapter of how others in the U. S. and around the world mimicked campaign trains for their own political, commercial, or other purposes. It's a lot of great stories in the book, and I hope people have the opportunity to read about these stories and educate themselves and pass what they learn on to their friends, families, and colleagues at work.

[00:22:22] It's a great part of American political history that I'm trying to preserve by having this book published. 

[00:22:28] Bob Gatty: It sounds like you'd make a great holiday present. Tell you the truth, I'd like to have one for myself. I need to tell my wife to call you up and say, hey, send me send Bob your book. 

[00:22:41] So it's called Whistle Stop Politics Campaign Trains and the reporters who covered them, folks. You need to check it out and I certainly am planning to. I wish I would have been able to see it prior to this interview, but such as the way it is. At any rate Edward, thank you so much for being with us.

[00:22:59] I really do appreciate it. Now people can find your book where? On Amazon, I presume, and where else? 

[00:23:05] Edward Segal: It's Amazon right now. It's available for pre ordering. The book will be published on February 13th as an ebook and a hardcover edition. So go to Amazon or go to my website at whistlestoppolitics. com. You can learn more about it and order the book through there as well. 

[00:23:23] Bob Gatty: All right, great. Thanks very much for being with us on the Lean to the Left podcast. I think this is a very interesting topic and I appreciate you being with us today. 

[00:23:32] Edward Segal: Thank you, Bob. I enjoyed the conversation. .

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