Bound for Victory : Truman’s Whistle-Stop Swing Aided Come-From-Behind Win


In early June, 1948, Harry S. Truman broke out of the White House, which he likened to jail.

Politically, things were grim. His popularity rating had dropped from 80% to 35% and try as he might he couldn’t get his message across to the voters.

To make matters worse, his Democratic Party was broke. It was difficult to raise campaign funds for what people saw as a certain loss to Republican Tom Dewey in the November presidential election.


So, on June 3, a month or so before the Democratic National Convention, Truman boarded a 16-car Presidential Special at Union Station in Washington to visit his own “silent majority” in the hinterlands. He called it a nonpolitical trip so it could be billed to his presidential travel budget.

Before it was over 15 1/2 days later, according to the Harry S. Truman Library, he would travel 9,504 miles, make 73 speeches, and visit 18 states. The number of non-speaking appearances was not recorded.

It was so successful he set out again from Washington on Sept. 6, after he had been nominated, aboard the armored private train car, the Ferdinand Magellan, for another swing around the country.

By the time he returned to the capital on Oct. 31--after a couple of breaks to rest up--he had traveled 21,928 miles, made 275 speeches and countless non-speaking appearances in revisiting the West, Midwest and Northeast, including a motorized swing through New York City where police estimated 1,245,000 people turned out.

The shadow of those trips fall across the current presidential campaign.

Both President Bush and Gov. Bill Clinton, his Democratic challenger, have evoked Truman’s name, action and character.

Bush has spoken admiringly of Truman’s come-from-behind victory. His heavy criticism of the current Democratic-controlled Congress recalls Truman’s campaign in 1948 against the Republican “do-nothing” Congress.


And the bus tours through several states and visits to small communities by Clinton and his running mate, Al Gore, recall Truman’s train trips.

In 1948, when the conventions were over, the Democrats chose (some felt stuck with) Truman, the incumbent, who was thrust into the presidency by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s death. A Missouri haberdasher turned politician, he followed a patrician with enormous charisma who had led the nation out of its worst depression and through the world’s greatest war.

Truman was opposed in the 1948 election by New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey, who was supported by Republican powers, Sens. Robert Taft of Ohio and Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan. Dewey had lost to Roosevelt four years previously but was now considered such a shoo-in that the pollsters had stopped polling.

So it did seem like David facing Goliath when Truman set off to introduce himself to America, with a staff of 20 White House aides and a then-record press party of 59.

The train left Washington at 11:05 p.m. June 3, with the President telling reporters, “If I felt any better, I couldn’t stand it.” Hundreds cheered as the train pulled out heading west.

In Pittsburgh, the first stop on his first trip, Truman’s private car, last on the train, could not make it to the platform. His visitors had to walk back to shake his hand.


Following are highlights of both trips gleaned from media accounts of the time and from other sources:

In Crestline, Ohio, a town of 4,000, he amused 1,000 people by calling his trip “nonpartisan, bipartisan.” He told them from the back platform of his special car that he was a prisoner in the White House and it was a good idea for a President to get out and see what the people were thinking.

Women held up their babies so they could see the President and one man said, “You’re looking good there old boy.”

There were more people on hand at Ft. Wayne, Ind., and along the way people waved at the train as it chugged through rural America. His first big stop was in Chicago where 100,000 gathered as he rode to the Palmer House in an open car.

The crowds kept building everywhere Truman went.

Everywhere he was met by mayors and governors eager to shake his hand in public while photographers popped their flashbulbs.

He addressed the Swedish Pioneer Centennial Assn. in Chicago, reminding them that a million people had already migrated to the American prairies and more than a quarter of all people of Swedish descent in the world live in America.


He tailored his talks to his audiences.

In Omaha he set out his farm program, but not without some embarrassment. There were less than 2,000 at the 10,000-seat Ak-Sar-Ben (Nebraska spelled backward) Auditorium. Advance men had left the impression that the seats were reserved for the 35th Division, which was convening in Omaha.

But Truman did not flinch. “I am making a speech on radio to the farmers. They won’t be there--they’ll be at home listening to that radio. They’re the ones I’m going to talk to.”

Repeatedly chastising Congress for failing to pass his initiatives, Truman said, “I believe the time has passed when a man can be for a farm program in the West and against a farm program when he is back East.”

That same day, with 160,000 lining the streets, he began riding in an open limousine with the major when his old World War I buddies from Battery D of the 35th Division marched by.

“What’s the matter with old Harry? Why can’t he walk with us?” one shouted. “Why can’t Harry walk?”

With that, the commander in chief left the car and marched with the men he had once commanded as a captain. Wearing a light tan double-breasted suit and a red Battery D armband, smiling and waving his broad-brimmed hat, he was clearly a pleased man.


“It almost overwhelms me to see all the people in western Nebraska in this town today,” he told a crowd at Sidney. Everywhere, from Laramie, Wyo., to Dillon, Mont., they turned out at all hours.

At Missoula, Mont., he had already turned in for the night, but made a special appearance in pajamas and bathrobe, apologizing, “I thought that you would like to see what I look like, even if I didn’t have on any clothes.”

Crowds who’d never seen a live President before began calling him “Harry.”

“Pour it on, Harry.”

“Give ‘em hell, Harry.”

Not without errors, however. At Carey, Ida., dedicating the Willa Coates Airport, Truman was misled into thinking it was being named for a soldier who had died in the war. Much to his chagrin, the grieving mother told him her little girl, Willa, had died in a civilian plane crash.

His staff encouraged him to speak extemporaneously, even though it was sometimes embarrassing. At Eugene, Ore., he recalled meeting Josef Stalin at Potsdam and said, “I like old Joe. He is a decent fellow.” It was the other communists who would not let Stalin carry out his promises.

Warned by aide Clark Clifford that such off-the-cuff indiscretions would best be pocketed, he admitted, “Well, I guess I goofed.”

Republicans struck back by radio, but it rarely had the same impact as Truman’s live appearances. With the first train campaign barely eight days old, Taft--Mr. Republican--said Truman was guilty of “blackguarding Congress at every whistle station” in the country. “Whistle station” soon became “whistle-stop,” a new expression for the political dictionary.


The Democrats wired every major city the train had passed through and asked mayors if they considered their town a whistle-stop. That brought a fountain of mail cascading on Congress.

Biographer David McCullough, in his book “Truman,” wrote: “He had just one strategy--attack, attack, attack, carry the fight to the enemy’s camp. He hammered the Republicans relentlessly, in speeches at Grand Junction, Colo., Helper, Springville and Provo, Utah. ‘Selfish men have always tried to skim the cream from our natural resources to satisfy their own greed. And . . . (their) instrument in this effort has always been the Republican Party. . . . ‘ “

In Washington state, the train barged forward to Spokane, Ephrata, Wenatchee, Skykomish, Everett, Bremerton--places many Americans had never heard of. And daily papers and radio commentators seldom failed to mention the latest dateline, the latest attack.

At Bremerton, Truman said, “You know, this Congress is interested in the welfare of the better classes. They are not interested in the welfare of the common, everyday man.”

At Olympia, he admonished the crowd to educate themselves. “You don’t want to do like you did in 1946. Two-thirds of you stayed at home in 1946, and look what a Congress we got. That is your fault, that is your fault.”

With his wife Bess and daughter Margaret frequently at his side and the Secret Service checking grade crossings in advance of the train, Harry Truman barnstormed the nation almost to Election Day. A pilot train ran 5 miles ahead of the presidential special to make sure that the track was secure.


In the meantime, Truman had organized the Berlin Airlift and goaded Congress into returning to work to deal with his initiatives in housing, health care, Social Security, education and farm aid.

Observers said the strain was more apparent on his staff than on the 64-year-old President.

Anthony Leviero, who covered most of the miles for the New York Times, quoted the President’s personal philosophy from a talk in Winslow:

“You know, the greatest epitaph in the country is here in Arizona. It’s in Tombstone, and this epitaph says, ‘Here Lies Jack Williams. He Done His Damndest.’

“I think that is the greatest epitaph a man could have. Whenever a man does the best he can, then that is all he can do, and that is what your President has been trying to do for the last three years for his country.”

At Arco, Ida., one little boy offered him a stick of chewing gum, and President Truman said, “Thanks. That’s just what I needed. I was just out.”


At Idaho Falls, another youngster reached for the presidential hand and deposited a clutched bunch of jelly beans.

Everywhere the message was delivered with a homey wisecracking tone the crowds seemed to applaud. They gave him gifts, including a set of spurs with instructions to use them on Congress. And everywhere they gave him vocal encouragement.

As the train raced across the nation at speeds up to 80 m.p.h., Truman worked behind 3-inch-thick bulletproof glass, says biographer McCullough. Forward was the galley, pantry and servant quarters. Then an oak-paneled dining room, which served as a conference room, then four staterooms, the center two serving as the Presidential Suite. At the rear was the observation room leading to his frequent podium, the platform which bore the Presidential Seal.

At Lima, Ohio, where they built locomotives, Truman told a crowd, “I’ve worn out three locomotives, and we’ll use three more before we get through, so that will make it good for business here. . . . “

Back home on Sunday, Oct. 31, the long trip over, still behind in the polls, Harry Truman worked on an election eve radio speech he would deliver from his living room in Independence, Mo., the next night:

“From the bottom of my heart I thank the people of the United States for their cordiality to me and their interest in the affairs of this great nation and of the world. I trust the people, because when they know the facts, they do the right thing . . . “


Truman carried 28 states and defeated Dewey by more than 2 million votes, 24,105,812 to 21,970,065.

Comedian Fred Allen, writes biographer McCullough in his book, said Truman was the first President to lose in a Gallup and win in a walk.