Riding the Rails: The Train As Powerful Presidential Image

By Peter RoffCommentator/Former Senior Political Writer for United Press International

Trains have a special place in the history and hearts of America. We did not truly become "one nation" until the golden spike linking east and west was driven into the ground at Promontory Summit, Utah in 1869. The technology of the time made the train the primary means of transportation over long distances until well after the end of the second World War. There is a majesty, an elegance to train travel of a certain era, a point apparently not lost on President-elect Barack Obama. He has entered Washington on a train, following the route taken by Lincoln on the way to his swearing in.

For good or for bad, the image of the train is connected to some of the great and near-great presidents of the 19th Century, and great near-presidents of the 20thCentury.

It was a train that carried FDR back from Warm Springs, Georgia, and then on to his burial at Hyde Park; And provoked a public outpouring of mourning and affection that remained unmatched until 1968, when a similar train carried the body of Senator Robert F. Kennedy across the land.

Harry S. Truman saved his presidency in 1948 when he waged the first modern, in-person presidential contest from the back of a train carrying him to and through the villages and towns and "whistle stops" that gave the tour a name and the campaign a victory.

The train is presidential, serious but not elite. Thoughtful. It's a powerful image, especially in contrast to the Clinton-Gore bus tour imagined as a way to express solidarity with the common man but, in hindsight, was a foreshadowing of the reduction in stature the incoming president and his presidency would endure.

Say what you want about the record amount of money being spent on Obama's inaugural -- by most counts the most expensive in history -- at a time when the nation's economy is reeling and unemployment is on the rise. Obama is projecting a presidential image, something the association with trains helps to do, that one can only believe he expects it will help him govern with a firm hand after he takes the oath of office on Tuesday.

Certainly expectations are high; perhaps unrealistically so. And one could argue that an effort to associate himself, consciously or otherwise, with the Kennedys, FDR and Truman raises the bar too high for him to overcome it. But now, on the eve of a new administration, in a time of world and domestic difficulties, he must hope it does not. Otherwise he may just end up being run out of town on a rail.