Press access was easier during Truman’s ‘48 ‘Whistle Stop’ tour

Had presidential security been as tight in September 1948 as it is today, I would never have made it aboard the Harry Truman “Whistle Stop” campaign train between Grand Junction and Glenwood Springs.

When Truman, the vice president who had stepped into Franklin Roosevelt’s shoes after the president’s death in 1944, began campaigning for re-election, he resorted to the train trip to carry his message to the public.

The train traveled 21,928 miles, crisscrossing the nation and stopping mostly at small and middle-sized towns. Truman would emerge on the back platform at each stop, usually flanked by at least one area Democratic dignitary, and speak briefly.

Accompanying the president were members of the Washington press corps, augmented by accredited local reporters from the state in which he was traveling.

The Daily Sentinel’s representative was Bill Nelson, the longtime political reporter, who had been checked out by Washington and approved several weeks previously.

A day or so before the train was due to stop in Grand Junction, the Sentinel’s city editor learned that the president’s adult daughter, Margaret, was accompanying him on the trip and suggested I try for an interview.

I pessimistically contacted Miles Kara, Mesa County Democratic chairman, to see if anything could be done at the last minute. Kara may have been as surprised as I was to learn that — minus any credentials and based on his word alone — I was going to get aboard.

It may have helped that one of the local “dignitaries” on the back platform was Daily Sentinel-friendly Colorado state Sen. Edwin Johnson and the other, Sentinel Publisher Walter Walker, who was to introduce Truman.

I can’t remember much about the interview with Margaret, who had aspirations as a singer and later gained a measure of renown as a writer, except that I was escorted into the back car, where the presidential entourage was headquartered.

The president wasn’t visible, but Margaret was available for the 10 minutes or so I spent with her as the train sped away from the railroad station toward Glenwood Springs.

Later, when the president made his official visit to the press car for an interview, I was told that I didn’t have the credentials to remain and was escorted to a forward unit until he had left the car.

In those days before television and the instant fame of broadcast “faces,” I recognized in the press car only Drew Pearson, who wrote the “Washington Merry-Go-Round,” a controversial column, and Burt Hanna, The Denver Post’s political reporter. I can’t recall seeing any women reporters aboard, but that was not surprising in the era when women covering the national capital were relegated to reporting on parties and society.

When the train stopped in Rifle, the press was warned not to get off. But I remember standing on the lowest step of the car and looking at the spectators while fantasizing that everybody probably thought I was one of the Washington crowd. At Glenwood Springs, Bill and I got off — our moment of importance just a memory.

While there continued to be campaign trains of lesser significance in later years, the Truman train was the last to go through Grand Junction. That campaign has remained famed in political circles because Truman came from behind to win against Republican Gov. Thomas Dewey of New York shortly after the Chicago Tribune had blared on its front page, “Dewey Defeats Truman.” Some historians give the “Whistle Stop” campaign much of the credit for Truman’s victory.

Beginning with Richard Nixon’s 1952 vice presidential bid, candidates and dignitaries have arrived by plane in Grand Junction. During my stint as a political reporter, President Dwight Eisenhower flew in to then-Walker Field in 1954; presidential aspirant John F. Kennedy in 1959; presidential hopeful Ronald Reagan in 1980; Vice President Walter Mondale in the late 1970s. And, of course, there was President Gerald Ford, who flew into and out of Grand Junction on his way to Breckenridge and Vail for golf or skiing with great regularity from 1974 through 1976.

Since my surprisingly easy access to Margaret Truman, security checks on reporters have gotten increasingly thorough. I can remember the security checks in the 1960s through the mid-1980s, and I can surmise that they haven’t gotten any less extensive.

On all those early appearances, reporters were issued paper badges, usually with “Visit of the President” or “Trip of the Vice President,” which differentiated them from the Washington press. Vetting of reporters scheduled for visits usually took from three to four weeks, and the whole process had to be started from scratch each time an important political figure arrived.

Finally, with Ford’s frequent trips to the Vail area, Grand Junction reporters and photographers who regularly covered him got permanent laminated passes just like those of the Washington crew. That meant we were automatically accredited and didn’t have to go through the process each time.

What happened to my permanent pass? I traded it in 1984 for a “Campaign 1984” laminated pass and I still have it.

Mary Louise Giblin Henderson is a former political reporter for The Daily Sentinel. She now lives in California.


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