Train of Thought: A ride on the City of New Orleans shows what is shaping voters’ choices

Chuck Sweeny

In this history-making election year, voters are itchin’ to talk politics.

On a train, they’re really itchin’ to do so because it makes the hours go by faster.

From Sept. 25 to 28, I hitched a ride on Amtrak’s City of New Orleans train between Chicago and the Big Easy.

It was a momentous news weekend. Congress and President Bush argued over a $700 billion rescue of the financial industry, Republican nominee John McCain suspended his campaign and almost didn’t show up for the first presidential debate at Ole Miss.

So what did the passengers from many states and walks of life say?

They’re steaming mad over the fact that taxpayers will foot the bill for Wall Street’s misfortune.

And they’re pretty closely divided in allegiance between McCain and Democrat Barack Obama. If the election were held now, it would be a nail-biter.

Below are dispatches from the trip. All aboard!

CHICAGO UNION STATION — Even if you’ve never been in this cavernous building, you’ve seen it in countless movies, including “The Untouchables” and “Derailed.” Amtrak is enjoying record ridership as people seek alternatives to the high cost of driving.

In a lounge the night of Sept. 25, people gather around a wide-screen TV to watch Wolf Blitzer and the pundit crew describe what’s going on with the proposed economic bailout.

Amtrak passengers shake their heads and laugh in disgust.

Leo Kennedy of Perrysburg, Ohio, is going home with his wife on The Capitol Limited. Now retired, he was plant manager at a factory in Michigan that makes plastic packaging. “See that Coke bottle,” he says, pointing to a nearby table. “I designed that.”

So, what does Leo make of the country’s economic situation?

“If I were 19, I would start a revolution. Take that $700 billion and cancel all the foreclosures, just cancel ‘em out. Help the little guy.”

Kennedy says he will vote for Bugs Bunny.

Meanwhile, Chris Juskewycz of Fairfield, Iowa, waits for a train to Erie, Pa., to see her 91-year-old mother. Chris and her husband own a sports memorabilia store in Fairfield, where business is down.

Juskewycz feels Congress must act on a bailout — “It’s Armageddon if they don’t” — but she wants independent oversight. “Congress has to hold firm. Don’t’ give in on everything. Don’t give Wall Street a blank check.”

Although she liked Joe Biden in the Iowa caucuses, “I think Obama is the best hope we have of being bipartisan in office.”

ON BOARD THE CITY OF NEW ORLEANS — By 8 p.m. that night, we are southbound on Train No. 59.

In the dining car, Lynda Liberatore of Rockford enjoys Cajun cuisine. She’s bound for Jackson, Miss., with her grandson.

Liberatore, a singer in the Sweet Adelines, tells me that the nation is “absolutely” in a fiscal crisis, and she’s upset that taxpayers will pay the burden.

When she goes to the polls Nov. 4, Liberatore will vote for McCain. Like other supporters, she admires his military experience and his strength under torture as a POW in North Vietnam.

“I guess I’m just a Republican at heart. I’m thrilled that he picked Sarah Palin. She’s a family gal, seems very intelligent and down to earth. She has good morals.”

Photographer Scott Morgan and I have dinner; he has steak, I have catfish. It’s included in the price of the $400 round-trip ticket; you’d pay half that if you spend 19 hours in coach.

Tracy Wiswall of Memphis speaks up. He’s an officer of a brokerage firm called Wunderlich Securities. “I’m not getting bailed out,” he says.

A lot of the softness in the economy is the result of bad mortgage debt, Wiswall says. “And the reason we have a mortgage crisis is because of all the Ninja loans that were made,” Wiswall says.

Huh? “Ninja means ‘no income, no job’ loans. They were loaning readily available cash to anybody.”

Wiswall plans to vote for McCain, but not enthusiastically. He prefers libertarian Republican Ron Paul.

Joan Brumfield of Chicago’s South Side, the owner of an adult day care, backs Obama, saying “he knows how to work a room.” Friends tell her that “they’ll never let a black man become president,” but she tells them, “Yes, they will. He’s a smart, black man. He listens to people.”

STILL ON BOARD THE TRAIN — It’s breakfast time Sept. 26, just hours from the McCain-Obama matchup.

Artie and Pat Jones of Hammond, La., are on the way home from Ann Arbor, Mich., where their son is a lawyer. Pat is relying on the debates to make up her mind. Art doesn’t need a debate.

“The last time I voted for a Democrat was JFK. I’m leaning toward McCain,” he says.

Tenika Murphy of Willowbrook is lined up for Obama, “basically because he’ll try to change the economy for the better and provide hope of new jobs.”

Right now, she’s a pharmacy tech for Walgreens but studying for a higher degree at the University of Illinois-Chicago. With new locations of the chain springing up just about every week, she figures a slew of pharmacists will be in demand.

Murphy — with daughter Kalisia, 7, and son Kevin, 11, to visit family in Vicksburg, Miss. — is concerned about education, too. That’s a “big reason” she recently moved her family to the suburbs. In Chicago, she had to scrimp and save to afford private school tuition.

The dining car, which doubles as a bar car, gets louder the closer this train gets to New Orleans.

Derek Boals of Ludington, Mich., owns a resort that has lost about 5 percent of its business this year. He admires McCain because he turned down a chance to leave prison early because others would not be let go. He’s not sold on Palin, though. “I don’t think she has any business being vice president. But he might win the presidency because of it.”

By that afternoon, the train rolls past Lake Ponchartrain and into New Orleans about 20 minutes late. We’d have been on time had we not been sidetracked several times by freight trains.

ON THE ST. CHARLES AVE. STREETCAR, NEW ORLEANS — When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, Pass Christian, Miss., was among the hardest-hit areas. “I’d say our town was 90 percent destroyed,” said Patrick O’Neill, 19, a student at Jefferson Davis Community College there.

He is visiting New Orleans the morning of Sept. 27 with Lauren Williamson, 18, and Madeline Carter, 17. O’Neill and his family spent six months living in a tent. Then they moved up a notch to a Gulfstream trailer. Only in the past six months has his family moved back into their rebuilt home.

The vintage 1920s streetcar makes its way past the grand Robert E. Lee monument, posh houses and mansions, churches and synagogues, Loyola and Tulane universities and the Audubon Zoo.

The three have come to tour Tulane University, where Carter, 17, has a scholarship to major in Latin American studies.

All of them watched Friday night’s debate. O’Neill and Williamson will be voting in their first election.

“I think McCain did pretty well at first, but he started to slip later on. Obama was much better at the end,” Williamson says.

“McCain did great, and I had heard that McCain was an awful debater. I didn’t see the flaws that others have seen,” says Patrick, adding that he’s leaning toward Obama but still undecided.

Both believe America should continue to be a world leader but set a better example and stop meddling.

“I don’t’ think we should be a super police force,” O’Neill says.

CHICAGO-BOUND AGAIN — It’s 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 27, as we head out of the station. Our stay in the Big Easy has been short, just an overnight. We enjoyed the French Quarter, ate blackened drumfish at K-Paul’s and saw post-Katrina reconstruction all over town.

Larry Myers, 35, is our sleeping car attendant on the “up train.” He liked last night’s debate.

“On the economy, I liked what Obama said. He was talking about balancing the budget, and of the different plans on the bailout. I was trying to figure that out. Some people say that Bush messed up on his watch. I don’t really know,” Myers said.

In Mississippi, he knows people who have never voted in their lives but are determined to vote this year.

“Most of them are saying they’re going to vote for Obama. They don’t understand about hockey moms and all that, and I don’t, either. I’m worrying about how to put more money in my pocket.”

Myers, a widower, was a barber for 12 years before he went to work on the railroad. “I wanted to try something different.”

Home builder Joel Smith, 66, of Lexington, Miss., says he’ll vote for McCain.

“I’ve been a Republican for 40 years. I feel (Obama’s) philosophy of government would set this country back 50 years. McCain is the only chance we have of stopping all the pork barrel spending and the programs that cause us to go deeper in debt.”

BACK IN ILLINOIS — At 9:30 a.m. Sept. 28, we are back in Union Station, half an hour late because of a detour caused by a sinkhole near downtown Memphis.

To summarize our trip:

--The Amtrak crew members were cheerful and courteous.

--New Orleans is not all gloom and doom.

--Folks are resigned that the alternative to a bailout — letting banks fail — would be worse.

--McCain supporters are attracted to his character and sense of fair play.

--Obama supporters want change ... and more change in their pockets.

--People are split on Palin.

--And the name Joe Biden only came up once.

Chuck Sweeny can be reached at (815) 987-1372

About this series

Each presidential election year, Political Editor Chuck Sweeny takes a trip to discover what’s on voters’ minds in the Midwest and beyond.

In 2004, he hit the road, with one leg from St. Paul, Minn., to Memphis, Tenn., and the other from Millennium Park to Yellowstone National Park.

This year, he hit the rails. He chose Amtrak’s City of New Orleans from Chicago to the Big Easy — a 19-hour ride — because he likes the song of the same name by Steve Goodman.

Sweeny traveled with photographer/videographer Scott Morgan at just the right time: They headed south Sept. 25, the day before the first debate between John McCain and Barack Obama, and returned the day after the debate, so they were able to get people’s reactions on the way home.

About the train ... and the song

The original City of New Orleans was a coaches-only day train started in 1947 by the Illinois Central Railroad. Amtrak dropped the train when it assumed control in 1971, deciding instead to operate the more widely known Panama Limited, the overnight Illinois Central streamliner with sleeping cars, which from 1911 had taken passengers to Louisiana to connect with steamships for Panama.

When folk singer Arlo Guthrie recorded Chicago folk singer Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans, the song became a hit in the 1970s. To cash in on its popularity, Amtrak changed the Panama Limited’s name to the City of New Orleans on Feb. 1, 1981.

Today’s City of New Orleans follows much of the same route of the earlier train, mostly on tracks owned, maintained and controlled by Canadian National Railway, the successor to Illinois Central. 

Therefore, while the name of the train is the same, the train itself and its schedule are quite different from the train in the song. Plus, the route was changed between Memphis and Jackson, Miss., in 1995.

And a final note on the song: It also has been covered by Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Judy Collins and John Denver.