The Politics of a Pullman Car
FROM de Tocqueville find Dickens to Mr. Bryce and Max O’Rell, there have been many suggestions as to the best method of studying the American people, as we in the United States modestly call ourselves. The fact is that, in the gradual evolution of our complex national life, the Pullman car has come to be the epitome of the United States. Here one finds not always the rich and the poor, but he finds the rich together with every variety of the well-to-do. The preacher, the teacher, the college professor, the politician, the business man, the labor-union delegate, touch elbows in a Pullman car. Here, under more democratic conditions than are to be found in any other spot on the continent, men live, move, and have their being; and here one sees, reduced to the dimensions of a drawingroom, the whole game of national life.
The centre of this small world lies in the smoking-room. It is there that men come closest together, and it is there that one has the best opportunities to know the average American. Mr. Bryce is said to have written his American Commonwealth out of the revelations of the Pullman car smoking-room, which is the reason for its trueness to life.
Just what, it is which leads men to open their hearts to one another when they sit down in the smoking-room and light their cigars, is not entirely easy to say, but the fact itself no one can doubt. Out of that perfect intimacy which comes from a total lack of acquaintance, men tell one another their loves and their disappointments, their virtues and their vices, their successes and their failures. They lay bare their hearts to a perfect stranger under the magic of a smoking-room acquaintance as they would never do to their most intimate friends. Strangers find a certain comfort in confiding to other strangers details of their inner lives, which they would go to infinite pains to conceal from a friend or from a relative.
Just how much of the spirit of fellowship in the Pullman car smoking-room comes from the fact that the men have never seen one another before, and will never see one another again, and just how much arises from the subtle influence of tobacco as a social solvent, it is again difficult to say. The intimacy of strangeness, and the charm of the cigar, are both powerful reagents in social chemistry. Together they seem irresistible. It is not quite three hundred years since good Sir Walter Raleigh, almost the first of the smokers, just before he lost his head on that October morning, wrote in his diary: “ I have smoaked [he had not learned the simplified spelling] — I have smoaked a roll of tobacco with great peace and comfort ;” and from that day to this the humanizing influence of the weed has been at once a joy and a danger to the sons of men.
Tobacco is so evident an agent in social intercourse that one sees in these days many men gradually learning to use a cigar for the sake of the companionship which it brings. Their attitude toward smoking is very much that of a colored gentleman in Atlanta who went in to purchase a razor. When the obliging clerk undertook to sell him a safety razor, the colored gentleman drew himself up somewhat stiffly and explained, “ I desired de razor, suh, for social purposes.” Many a man in these degenerate days smokes, not because he likes it, but for social purposes.
It is, however, during the excitement of a national campaign that the smokingroom of the Pullman car becomes a place of the sharpest discussion, and of the keenest interchange of opinion. It is then that confidences become political rather than personal, and the stories of the drummer, of the politician, and of the wayfaring man, turn toward the candidates. No matter what may be the origin of a discussion, everybody knows that before long it will point toward politics, and that sooner or later it will drift away from state politics to national politics. It is on these occasions that the best stories are told, and the keenest wit is displayed. And it is in these little eddies of our popular life that one sees in miniature our whole national existence. The possibilities of coming success in a campaign could in no way be more clearly estimated than by a canvass of the Pullman car smoking-rooms.
The national campaign which closed last November was one of the least eventful which we have passed through since Mr. Bryan first formed the habit of running for the presidency. This phase of the campaign was faithfully reflected in the discussions of the Pullman car. Universally it was admitted that Taft would win. The only question was as to the extent of the majority, and throughout all the predictions there ran so friendly a thread of comment, upon the man who has since become President that it was generally impossible to get up anything like a real political discussion. A census of the Pullman car votes would have elected Taft by a little larger majority than he actually received, but its verdict would have been practically that which the country rendered in November.
The only eddy in this placid talk of the Pullman smoking-room would occur when some Democrat of the Bryan wing got into an argument with a Democrat of the conservative type. When this happened the company once more took courage, and felt that politics was worth while. Now and then the hope was not in vain — the sparks flew.
I remember one such incident on a train leaving Kansas City for the West. Kansas City is a point which the transcontinental traveler never forgets, because it has the most crowded, dirty, and uncomfortable union station on the continent. It is, however, one of the great distributing points for western travel. The transcontinental trains all start about six o’clock in the evening. The wise traveler makes his way immediately to the dining-car, which is cut off at an early hour. Having satisfied the inner man, he repairs as promptly as possible to the smoker, in order to secure a place. On the occasion to which I allude the room was already fairly filled, and the air comfortably blue, while two Missourians, each a little excited, were in the midst of a warm discussion. The Bryan representative had just expressed the opinion that Mr. Bryan was the greatest exponent of democracy since Jefferson’s time, and would in the end lead the people to victory.
The picture of Bryan as leader fairly made the other Missourian squirm. Taking a black cigar from his mouth with his left hand, and gesticulating in a large circle with his right, he said, “I was a Democrat until twelve years ago, but Bryan and his crowd have forced me to vote the Republican ticket so long that I don’t know that I’ll ever get out of the habit. It’s bad enough,” he said, “ to have Bryan as a candidate, but when you talk of him as a leader of the Democratic party and compare him to the great Thomas Jefferson, then nothing short of profanity — and that of the most acid variety — can express my feelings. Bryan as the leader of the Democratic party,” continued he, “ reminds me of the time when Uncle Tom Sitling of Pike County sent his prize mule down to St. Louis by boat. Uncle Tom was prouder of this mule — the mule was eighteen hands high — than he was of anything on his farm, not even excepting his wife, and in order that the mule might reach the commission agent to whom he was consigned, in perfect safety, he sent a trusted colored man, named Ephraim, to look after the mule. As Ephraim could n’t read, the address of the commission agent had been carefully written on a tag and tied to the mule’s left fore foot. The boat reached St. Louis all right, and the morning they got there the captain found Uncle Ephraim and the mule on deck, but very much puzzled as to what they should do. ‘ Where are you going, Uncle Ephraim ?' said he. ' Well, boss,’ said the old man, scratching his head, ‘ that is the question. I dunno where we’re gwine, de mule he dunno where we’re gwine, an’ he done et up his tag.’ The trouble is, gentlemen,” continued the man from Pike, “ that the Democratic party under Mr. Bryan’s guidance not only does n’t know where it’s going, but it’s eaten up its tag, so that you can’t see anything but Populist labels.
“ Now, sir,” he added to his antagonist, who was somewhat overwhelmed by the story, " there are three reasons why Bryan will not be elected in November : the first reason is Theodore Roosevelt; the second is William Howard Taft; but the third and principal reason is William Jennings Bryan.”
Outside of the question as to which party and which candidate would win, and outside of the discussion of the fortunes of particular states, the most common theme of conjecture in the Pullman car during the campaign was the question as to what were the appropriate activities for presidential candidates. The spectacle of a presidential candidate rushing about the country, and addressing audiences here and there, speaking day after day from the rear end of a train, is one which has come in with the Bryan method of doing things. Whatever may be its political value, the practically unanimous verdict of the smoking-room was against it. Politicians, lawyers, officeholders, travelers of all vocations, united in saying that the picture of a presidential candidate going about the country to solicit votes or to put fire into local organizations of his party, was not a pleasing one. Not only was the sentiment of the smoking-room dead against this sort of thing, but its judgment almost unanimously condemned the process from the standpoint of vote-getting. The men who ride on Pullman cars believed that Taft would get as many votes by staying at home as by being carried about the country under the management of the Republican campaign committee. I am much inclined to think that the judgment of the Pullman car in this matter not only was on the side of dignity, but also was good politics.
There is much evidence to show that the outpourings of people to hear a candidate for the presidency have no significance in showing how they are to vote. Men will come to hear the candidate of either party simply out of curiosity, and out of the common desire to see and hear the man who is the candidate for so great an office, and there is little evidence to show that the votes of these great assemblages are affected by the speeches which are made, or even to show that the crowds which come are made up of those who are in any way politically friendly to the candidate.
This fact was illustrated by two circumstances which came under my eye in the last month of the campaign. Going out of Denver one night on a Pullman car, I found the smoking-room full of those who had come to Denver to attend the Republican welcome to Mr. Taft, and to hear him speak in the new Denver auditorium. Naturally, I assumed that these men must be mainly Republicans, and was much surprised to find that seven out of nine were Democrats, some of whom had made a three-hundred-mile trip out of mere desire to hear the candidate of a rival party. The verdict of the smoking-room was that the candidate is misled by the appeals of the professional politicians, each of whom has a direct interest in keeping the candidate on the jump.
A more curious instance was that of a ranchman who had ridden fifty miles on horseback, taken a thirty-mile stage ride, and traveled one hundred and fifty miles on the train to hear Mr. Bryan. As he was known to be a lifelong Republican, he was questioned on his return as to the reason for such a journey.
“ I suppose,” said the questioner, “ you went to hear a specimen of Mr. Bryan’s oratory.”
“ No,” said he, “ I did n’t care particularly to hear Mr. Bryan speak.”
“ Well,” inquired the visitor, “ what was your idea in making this long journey ? ”
“ Well,” said he, “ it is like this. I never shook hands in my life with a man who was President of the United States. Now in Colorado this fall we are going to go Democratic, and it may be that Mr. Bryan will be elected President ; and I went out just to shake hands with him, so that if he becomes President I can say I have shaken hands with a President of the United States! ”
The verdict of the smoking-room was that the crowds of listeners who gathered to hear the candidates for the presidency had no significance in the actual working out of the campaign. The only practical result of these terrific efforts of the presidential candidates was said to lie in the quickening of the party machinery in different localities ; but even this is, in the judgment of the smoking-room, a negligible quantity, and it is more than doubtful whether the irritation produced by this spectacle does not offset the advantage of a slight advance in party activity. The smoking-room almost to a man condemned the sort of campaigning for the presidency which has come in through the example of Mr. Bryan.
Another very common topic of smoking-room politics during last autumn was the question of presidential interference in the political conduct of a campaign. President Roosevelt, more than any other president, took a personal part in the actual conduct of the campaign, and the election of his successor; and this activity of the President was, on the whole, disapproved in the smoking-room, without regard to occupation, and without regard to party. Whether the President’s active interference helped Mr. Taft or not, was a much mooted question. The professional politicians thought it did ; the men who were not so closely associated with politics doubted; but on the whole, there was a general sentiment, not only against the practice, but against the political wisdom of the practice. No man except one having the unprecedented popularity of Mr. Roosevelt could have gone through the experience without a serious loss of prestige, and there is no question that even he lost popularity by reason of it, and nowhere so much as amongst the members of his own party. " We like Teddy,” said a cowboy foreman on his way out to Denver at the head of a large shipment of stock, “ but this is not his game.” And this sentiment, with varying degrees of refinement and directness, was the Pullman-car verdict upon the President’s political activities during the last campaign.