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Bob Withers: Recollections of riding the rails with President Bush

December 5, 2018

Imagine my euphoria at 10:24 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 26, 1992, before we had moved a single coach-length out of the old Mount Street Yard in Columbus, Ohio.

“I can now say I have ridden a POTUS campaign train,” I thought to myself.

I had been working on my first book, “The President Travels by Train: Politics and Pullmans,” which wouldn’t be published until 1996. But my research had sharpened my appetite for seeing, photographing and even riding a POTUS train.

George H.W. Bush’s 19-car “Spirit of America” would run via Conrail and CSX Transportation on Saturday and Sunday from Columbus to Grand Blanc, Michigan. Bush would make two more rail campaign jaunts before losing to Bill Clinton that year.

Newspapers have recorded the speeches, press reports and photographs, but I want to share precious memories that escaped the headlines. Like, for example . . .

>> Press representatives, including me, boarded CSX lounge car “Tennessee” after walking through freshly plowed cinder ballast and leaving footprint-shaped smudges of black gunk on a just-vacuumed carpet, irritating the custodian, a CSX assistant vice president.

>> Rain in Bowling Green, Ohio, dashed an entrepreneur’s hopes of selling many pizzas. When I re-boarded the train, he was selling whole pizzas for a dollar. I snapped one up. Two Secret Service agents walking through my coach asked if I would share with them. I agreed.

I asked one of them if the number of government people aboard was classified.

“Sure is,” he replied with a stone face. “Besides, I don’t know.”

His hungry colleague piped in, “Let’s say there’s one too many. Can I go home now?”

They sat across the aisle, scarfed down several slices apiece and promptly went to sleep!

>> The next morning in Holly, Michigan, the roped-off area for press risers had been compromised and the public crowded in on all sides.

The jam helped me, however. People who couldn’t see the Bushes started passing their cameras up to me to take photos for them. “I thought of Mark 2:4 in the Bible — “they could not come nigh unto him for the press.” As he left, the last fellow turned around as I was bending over to find a way to get down from the risers. He took a picture of me with Bush in the background on the open rear platform of CSX private car “Baltimore” — which Barbara Bush called a “caboose” in her memoir — and sent me an enlargement of it. One of my longtime rail-fan friends, Lloyd D. Lewis, titled it “Hernia at Holly.”

I did not meet Bush on that 233-mile trip. That would come later.

In January 1999, I wrote him a letter after I saw the locomotive that led his campaign train coming into Huntington and suggested he run for a second — non-consecutive — term like Grover Cleveland did.

Ever gracious, he responded.

“I remember that train trip well and loved every minute,” he wrote. But he didn’t take me up on my suggestion.

“My political days are over — happily so; and my only interest in politics now relates to my two sons’ future.”

Then, he added, somewhat prophetically, “Perhaps our paths will cross again someday.”

That took place six years later.

Sue Ann and I were invited to drive down to the George (H.W.) Bush Library on the campus of Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, in October 2005 to witness the unveiling of a brand new Union Pacific locomotive numbered 4141 for him and painted in Air Force One colors. That engine will pull his funeral train from Spring, near Houston, 74 miles to College Station on Thursday.

Everyone trooped through the engine’s cab. I shook the former president’s hand and told him I wrote the book on presidential rail travel.

He replied “fantastic!”

A day later, he autographed the original copy of my book and museum personnel returned it to me.

In May 2006, I spoke at the library about my book, and the museum paid our way down there in Amtrak sleepers!

Now that first copy has been autographed by four presidents — Gerald Ford; Bush 41; Bill Clinton, whose train I rode in August 1996; and Bush 43, whom I interviewed here for The Herald-Dispatch in 2000. Needless to say, that book is tucked away in my safety deposit box!

Bob Withers, a retired reporter and copy editor for The Herald-Dispatch, pastors Seventh Avenue Baptist Church in Huntington. For more information, call him at (304) 522-2046.

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