Reagan whistle-stop tour: a special event despite the politics

Franklin D. Roosevelt rode it. So did Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Now Ronald Reagan adds his name to the annals of American presidents who have traveled aboard the historic Pullman car ''Ferdinand Magellan.''

There is a difference, of course. FDR, for whom the private car was rebuilt and specially outfitted, used it frequently: He covered about 50,000 miles in it. Truman traveled more than 21,000 miles in the ''Magellan'' during his 1948 whistle-stop campaign across the country, giving more than 350 speeches. President Reagan campaigned from it for only one day, stopping five times along a 150-mile route.

But it was a day wrapped in nostalgia, flags, balloons, ebullient crowds, and a sense of real America.

This town of 10,000 people in western Ohio was brimming with anticipation. Two days before, on the morning of Oct. 10, the local newspaper had only one news item on its front page. ''President Reagan to visit Perryburg'' screamed the five-inch-high banner headline.

''A sense of excitement; a feeling of being present as history is being made, is sweeping over the City of Perrysburg,'' said the lead story. ''The daily newspapers, radio, and television stations have disseminated the news that President Ronald Reagan is to be in Perrysburg Friday evening, Oct. 12, 1984.''

The community received the news calmly, indicated the Perrysburg Messenger Journal, but when word spread that the Secret Service was in town, measuring roof heights and walking the railroad tracks, town officials swung into action. Police had to be briefed and bus shuttles arranged to bring shoppers and schoolchildren to the rally site. The Perrysburg High School Band, the paper said, would play for the President's arrival - and then ''travel to Maumee for the Ding Dong battle between the Perrysburg Yellow Jackets and Maumee Panthers.''

Partisan politics generated much of the local excitement, to be sure. Reagan won Ohio by only 1 percent of the vote in 1980, and he is looking for a decisive victory in 1984. His campaign strategists planned every detail of every rally with customary thoroughness and an eye to television extravaganza.

But as the President's reelection train rolled through western Ohio - starting at Union Station in Dayton at 12:30 p.m. and stopping in Sidney, Lima, Ottawa, and Deshler before arriving in Perrysburg - it was evident that for many Ohioans, just having the President come to visit was something special.

''Folks are excited about this trip,'' commented one Ohioan. ''And it's not just because they're conservative. It's the President coming. That's a big thing here. They even get excited when they see (TV network news reporters) Sam Donaldson or Andrea Mitchell.''

''It's a once-in-a-lifetime situation,'' said trainman Robert Tirey, who works on this freight line for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.

The train ''sped'' at about 50 miles an hour past lovely farmlands and corn fields, where trees brightened a dull gray day with the orange, red, and yellow hues of autumn.

At every crossing there were knots of people standing and cheering as the ''Heartland Special,'' as it was dubbed, went by. On a golf course, players stopped their game to watch.

As the train slowed to 10 m.p.h. through small towns of clapboard houses, tree-lined streets, and modest factories, the President could see hundreds of local citizens waving, smiling, and taking pictures. In Troy, farmers in overalls stood atop their trucks. In Piqua, tractors and other farm machines were lined up parallel to the tracks; on one was emblazoned the sign, ''This corn won't be embargoed.''

Usually Reagan emerged from the armor-plated ''Magellan'' only for a rally stop. But as the train slowed through Troy, he stepped out onto the platform, waved, and, his voice amplified, told the onlookers: ''Thank you, thank you all for being here. Good to see you all. Sorry we can't stop.''

The campaign rallies themselves were classic Reagan. Amid the trappings of banners, bunting, and high school bands, and with jubilant partisan supporters cheering him on, the President gave the same stump speech at each stop - evoking the memory of Harry Truman, smoothly playing on the doubts of Democrats, flaying the ''malaise'' of the Carter administration, and attacking Walter Mondale more forcefully than at any time since the beginning of the campaign.

''It's fitting that we're campaigning today on Harry Truman's train - following the same route that he took 36 years and one day ago,'' he told the throng in Lima. ''I respected his ability to stand for what he believes; his consistency of principles and his determination to do the right thing.''

''Mr. Truman could also make very plain the differences between himself and his opponent,'' he went on, looking down at his 5-by-7-inch index cards. ''And, my friends, that's just what we're going to do today.''

Accusing Mondale of offering ''a future of pessimism, fear, and limits'' and of ''slipping and sliding and ducking away'' from his record, Reagan said his opponent's philosophy could be summed up in four sentences: ''If it's income, tax it. If it's revenue, spend it. If it's a budget, break it. And if it's a promise, make it.''

His audience applauded and shouted, ''Four more years!''

There were some hecklers, too, and homemade placards of Democratic variety: ''Go Back to Hollywood,'' ''Where's the Beef?,'' ''Lima Was Better Off 4 Years Ago.''

But the boos were drowned out by the overpowering Republican clamor.

''I thought he was terrific!'' said Betty Thompson, one of the spectators who had come from Finley, Ohio, to see the President. ''We like what he stands for and we want him to carry on.''

Away from the rally crowd, one could meet Democrats. ''It's a big deal for this town,'' commented Tony Bonofiglio, a student at Lima Technical College. ''But I'm a Democrat, and he kind of scares me. He's letting big business get away with too much. I've been studying about all those chemical waste sites, and he's not doing a good job about that.''

This was the single most costly event for the Reagan-Bush campaign committee. The historic train cars had to be transported from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the train assembled, and moved to Ohio. But White House and campaign officials traveling with the President were ecstatic about the results. They estimated that some 100,000 people turned out for the rallies, and many more thousands gathered along the tracks to greet the campaign train.

''It was super,'' remarked campaign director Ed Rollins. ''The President loved it. We ought to do more of this kind of thing.''

The 14-car train pulled into Perrysburg at 7:35 p.m., only 20 minutes late. Thousands of Reagan partisans had been standing for hours. Darkness had settled on the town and many in the crowd who had flashlights helped illuminate the rear of the train. As the President, clad in black suit and red tie, emerged from the ''Magellan'' - ''US Car No. 1'' - onto the rear platform, cheers and whistles rang out in the soft evening air.

Although Reagan had already delivered five campaign speeches, he launched into his final pitch of the day with enthusiasm. Invigorated by chants of ''Four more years! Four more years!'' he warmed to his audience, his voice rising in indignation as he told them he would never tamper with social security benefits.

When the President suggested it was time for the whistle to blow and for him to leave, a loud ''Noooooooo ...'' resounded through the wildly exuberant throng. Then the sky lit up with a dramatic display of red, white, and blue fireworks and the crowd sang ''God Bless America.'' The President had a parting shot before he disappeared: ''For our opponents, every day is April 15, tax day. For us every day is the Fourth of July.''

It was consummate campaign theater.

Now the ''Magellan'' museum piece will return to its owner, the Gold Coast Railroad, a nonprofit organization of railroad enthusiasts. It will doubtless add photos and memorabilia of the presidential whistle-stop ride on Oct. 12, 1984.

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