Thursday, August 29, 1996
Pulfer: Pomp, politics and presidential polish

BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

My mom made me promise that if I met the president, I would tell him what a good job he and his wife are doing with their daughter. Maybe next time.

Although I rode the train with Mr. Clinton on his way to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the closest I got to him was a pretty good seat at every rally along the way. One reporter on board the 21st Century Express asked White House press secretary Mike McCurry whether we could spend some quality time with his boss. (Maybe her mother had sent some instructions, too.)

The unmanaged stage

Mr. McCurry replied, ''You have been watching him every stop along the way, which I think is great.'' Excuse me for noticing the obvious, Mr. McCurry, but you would think that's great. We think it would be great to hang out with the president without stage directions from Harry Thomason.

The president's friend and Hollywood producer orchestrated the train trip through West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan and Indiana. He did a terrific job. The crowds were big and enthusiastic at every stop. The music was loud and upbeat. The lights were bright enough for the television cameras.

The president looked crisp and unwrinkled, even at the end of the day. He must have had a shower in his private car because the rest of us looked as if we should have been run through a car wash. Besides whistle-stop speeches, the president was working on the speech he'll make tonight.

''He has been meeting with some of his speechwriters and exchanging drafts, and he is doing an extensive amount of rewriting himself on it,'' Mr. McCurry said.

I hope he took time off from his labors to look out the windows of the train.

''We're on this train,'' the president told an audience in northwestern Ohio, ''because I wanted to go through America's heartland to Chicago. I wanted to see the people in this country that I've been fighting for for the last four years.''

Small-town stops

The train rolled northwest through Ohio, from Columbus to Arlington to Findlay to Bowling Green to Toledo, through endless fields of soybeans and corn, punctuated by crossings, most of which were not big enough to earn an automatic gate. Local cops blocked the roads. Most of them stood at attention and saluted as the president passed.

As we chugged through Findlay, a peewee football team dropped the ball and ran to form a line, helmets off, hands clasped behind their backs. People waited in lawn chairs and on bumpers of some very well-used cars. Even the ones holding Dole-Kemp signs smiled and waved. They were not baking in the sun for a glimpse of Candidate Clinton. They held up their babies to see President Clinton.

At one stop, I asked an elderly man whether he'd waited for three hours because he's a loyal Democrat. ''Oh my, no,'' he said. ''I used to be the Republican chairman of this town. I'm here because I'm a patriot.'' He says he admires the president's ability to ''push all the right buttons.''

He said he has been watching Mr. Clinton promise the police protection from ''cop-killer bullets.'' He promised jobs to auto workers and tuition credits to residents of a college town.

Losing the connection

Just because people beside the tracks were wearing jeans and T-shirts instead of suits, they are not unsophisticated. The president told a crowd in Toledo that ''people lose the connection between what is done in government and what happens in their daily lives. It's easy to lose that connection.''

I grew up and went to school with those people along the tracks, and I think the president is mistaken. ''Heartland'' folks have always known all too well that what happens in Columbus and Washington comes back to us. The connection has always been crystal clear to us: You do it. We live with it.

Tonight, he will address the nation. So what will he promise us? What did he see on his trip that was unscripted? Although I didn't get close enough to pass along my mom's compliment about Chelsea, I know he was on the train.

Maybe tonight we'll find out whether he looked out the windows.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer 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.