Riding the rails with Sen. Obama in Pennsylvania.

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April 19 2008 2:26 PM

Barack Track

Riding the rails with Sen. Obama in Pennsylvania.

Read Part 2 of John Dickerson's travels with Sen. Barack Obama over the weekend.

DOWNINGTOWN, Pa.—At the next train stop, I'm going to stand behind Sen. Obama when he speaks. When he's decrying the trivial distractions in politics, I think he may be crossing his fingers behind his back.

As the senator's campaign train wound from one speech where he denounced tit-for-tat politics to the next speech where he denounced tit-for-tat politics, his campaign hosted a conference call to engage in the practice the candidate was busy denouncing. I suppose it would have been an even greater act of chutzpah for the Obama campaign to host the conference call while Sen. Obama was denouncing that kind of behavior, but not much more of one.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Obama campaign aides scheduled the call to talk about Hillary Clinton's fantastical story about her breakneck race to shelter under sniper fire during a visit to Bosnia. You might think this would be the last story the Obama campaign would be pushing because in Wednesday's debate, the senator mistakenly suggested his campaign had only discussed the issue because reporters had brought it upnot because they were trying to take advantage of Clinton's extended work of fiction. To push the story again now would make Obama look even more insincere about that claim.

In the same debate, Obama also suggested the story was pretty much off-limits. When asked about Clinton's Bosnia problem, he said this: "I think Sen. Clinton deserves, you know, the right to make some errors once in a while. … I think what's important is to make sure that we don't get so obsessed with gaffes that we lose sight of the fact that this is a defining moment in our history ... for us to be obsessed with this—these kinds of errors I think is a mistake. And that's not what our campaign has been about."

On his train tour Saturday, Sen. Obama continued to condemn the petty distractions that keep Americans from focusing on real issues. He decried Clinton's "tactics of Washington," in which she attacks him with every possible weapon. "She's got the kitchen sink flying, the china flying. The buffet is coming at me … when we get involved in the constant distractions, the petty tit-for-tat politics … that may be good for the television ratings, but that's not good for you."

While the candidate was denouncing the distractions, his aides were promoting them. Three veterans of the Bosnia conflict joined for a conference call to explain just how crucial this particular distraction was and why we should ignore Sen. Obama's guidance and get obsessed with this issue.

Maj. Gen. Walter Stewart explained that because Clinton had fabricated on the issue of sniper fire, Clinton would not be able to perform the traditional ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier who, he averred, was undoubtedly killed by sniper fire. "She will lack the moral authority to lay the wreath on Memorial Day," he said. She would also be unable to honor the veterans remembered on the Vietnam memorial because many of them had also been killed by sniper fire. Capt. Aaron Clevenstine offered a variation on this theme: "As someone who trained snipers, I take offense to the notion that she was under sniper fire." Michael Kotyk, a retired veteran of the Navy, broadened the significance of Clinton's yarn: "We've had eight years of dishonor. We need honor. If you're going to tell stories, then you're not displaying honor."

Shortly after the conference call ended, Sen. Obama's train pulled into Downingtown, and he worked the crowd into a frenzy by denouncing the scourge of petty, distracting attack politics.

Posted Saturday, April 19, at 5:35 p.m.

WYNNEWOOD, Pa.—Barack Obama was grinning like a kid when he stepped onto the platform of the antique train car he's riding in today in his four-city tour through central Pennsylvania. He's enjoying the plush comfort of the Georgia 300 lounge car, which is filled with leather upholstery, Tiffany lamps, and embroidered finery. It looks like the perfect set for a Kenny Rogers vehicle. The candidate even has access to a tidy little bedroom with a pink Pullman bedspread and a bathrobe. He won't be napping today, though. The 100-mile trip is packed with stops, and besides, he's not going to give Hillary Clinton any chance to call him soft again. But Obama couldn't resist taking advantage of the train whistle. Boarding at 30th Street station in Philadelphia at the start of the journey, he tugged on a cable, and it let out a long, loud wail. "That's too much right there," he said with a broad smile.

At his first stop in Wynnewood, Obama was still basking in the glow of his event the night before in Philadelphia, where 35,000 people had come to see him. A few thousand stood in the bright sunshine by the train platform in the suburban hamlet as Obama took the stage in shirtsleeves.

The speech was similar to the one he's been giving for the last 15 months. He railed against "tit-for-tat politics" and promised to change it. "You do have a choice in this election," he said, painting Clinton as a typical Washington-style politician willing to say and do anything. She "changes positions to suit the politics of the moment," said Obama. Behind me, a man yelled, "Go ahead, Barack."

He alluded only briefly to the debate Wednesday night. "I'm not interested in having debates about flag pins," he said, referring to a question that had touched on his refusal to wear one. "I'm interested in having debates about how we're going to send our kids to college and get our troops home from Iraq."

Obama talked repeatedly about his penchant for truth-telling as a way to contrast himself with his opponent. He was going to tell people what they needed to hear and not what they wanted to hear. This also has been a standard part of the Obama campaign speech, and it's still true that after so many months of promising hard truths, Obama doesn't really force people to accept any. (With the blistering heat, it would have been a great time, say, to tell the truth about the hard choices we're all going to have to make to combat global warming.)

The crowd didn't mind that Obama wasn't actually telling any hard truths. They roared approvingly throughout his remarks. One 12-year-old girl, Kabira Arnold, ran from the crowd that swarmed around Obama after the speech and screamed, "He hugged me." Her friends collapsed around her as she twirled and danced. After the hug, she told Obama, "You are the best person ever."

Posted Saturday, April 19, at 2:26 p.m.

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