Tuesday, August 27, 1996
Just boarding Clinton train is half the fun

BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Please believe that I am not totally stupid. When I found out that I had a seat on the presidential train to Chicago, I did not really think that Mr. Clinton and I would be sitting side by side in matching engineer hats, fighting over who gets to blow the whistle.

I knew that there might be others along on this trip. As it turns out, this is a very long train, one that you would not want to cross your personal intersection if you are in a hurry. And you don't exactly get to drop in at the last minute.

First you have to fill out many, many pages of information including, I noticed indignantly, your weight. I guess they want to put all us fat journalists in the seats with good springs. Or perhaps they are worried about special dietary requirements, such as whether we're likely to demand Cheetos and beer.

The official questionnaire

''All information on the White House Press sign-up sheet becomes BINDING.'' (Their caps, not mine. I think it's a cheap literary device. I use italics for emphasis.) So, although I would like to look more svelte just in case I get anywhere near George Stephanopoulos, I am BOUND (bound) not to lose a pound.

So be it. I had french fries for lunch.

The completed sign-up sheet was to be faxed to the White House Lower Press Office. The office, I hope, refers to its location and does not reflect any sort of caste system. You know, like I would be among the Lower Press, but Cokie Roberts would return her credentials to the Upper Brow Press Office and Don Imus would send his off to the Under-A-Rock Press Office.

As taxpayers, you will be pleased to learn that everything for the press corps is cash on the barrelhead. It cost The Enquirer $300 for me to ride from Columbus to Toledo. I believe I could have hired a limo with a bar and a TV for that, but then I'm a careful shopper. Modems, hotels, cellular phones and fax hookups are a la carte.

Demands were issued for credit card numbers, along with ominous warnings about ''reconciled charges,'' clearly just a way to make sure that the Clinton-Gore '96 Primary Committee does not get stuck with bills for macadamia nuts and Chivas from the hotel honor bar. A baffling blizzard of confirmations and further instructions included a note that some of us may be tapped to join the ''jogging pool.'' Yipe. I'd rather be in the Big Mac pool or the doughnut-eating pool.

My plan always has been simply to meet the Leader of the Free World and get a train ride. By the way, although this train trip is a brilliant way to whip up attention for a convention that has even less suspense than the one in San Diego, this is not an original idea.

In 1836, William Henry Harrison became the first presidential candidate to take to the rails. Harry Truman's famous whistle-stop campaign from the back of a railroad car won him the election, and Ronald Reagan liked the idea well enough for a bi-partisan reprise 30 years later.

As part of my intense preparation and research for this trip, I scrounged a video called Dream Trains, Short Hops and Whistle Stops. It's part of the ''Americana Series'' by Sentimental Productions, a Cincinnati company that has also produced videos on the Delta Queen, Burma-Shave signs and antique roadsters.

The box promised, ''Historic films and photographs capture nostalgic glimpses of small-town depots and big-city terminals.'' This sounded like the perfect cram course for my trip through Ohio farm country.

I learned that Mr. Truman traveled in a private car, the Ferdinand Magellan, refurbished for presidential use by the Pullman Co. It was later sold back to the government for $1. I do not know what Sen. Alphonse D'Amato would have to say about this. President Clinton's 21st Century Express is using private rail cars and Amtrak passenger equipment.

I will be reporting to you shortly from a cornfield in northern Ohio. I expect to be able to pass along important political information, such as whether James Carville really short-sheeted Sam Donaldson's bed. And I will investigate rumors that Al and Tipper Gore are taking macarena lessons.

After all, I am traveling with the Lower Press.

Laura Pulfer's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM) and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.