“Whistle-stopping” is practice of making political speeches or appearances in many different towns during a short period of time.
The term originates from the time when politicians mainly traveled by train and gave speeches from the back of the train during “whistle-stops” in small towns. The term now covers any means of travel punctuated by multiple short stops, usually arranged by an advance man. The term “flag stop” is used almost interchangeably with “whistle stop.”
The BBC notes that the term “whistle-stopping” originated in America but is now used by European politicians too. The expression may have been used first by the columnist O.O. McIntry, back in 1928. McIntryre wrote about a person who had to admit that his hometown was “some outlandish whistle stop with the conventional red depot.”
President Harry Truman is famous for his long whistle-stop tour while he was running for re-election in 1948. Truman’s campaign tour stretched 31,000 miles and included 352 campaign stops. The tour was planned by Truman’s publicist, a journalist named Charlie Ross. Voters apparently thought of Truman as distant and uncharismatic, and the whistle-stop tour was supposed to give them a fresh look at the president. The president reached three million Americans while he was on the months-long tour.
Of course, Truman and his staff did not invent the whistle stop tour. Abraham Lincoln was famous for campaigning from trains and train stations. After Lincoln was elected president, he spent nearly two weeks traveling from his home in Illinois to Washington DC to be sworn in as president. The extended trip gave Lincoln time to meet with his supporters in whistle stops throughout the country. Along the way, the president-elect survived an assassination attempt (discovered by the railroad detectives).
Almost a hundred and fifty years later, president-elect Barack Obama recreated Lincoln’s famous whistle-stop tour. Obama traveled to his own inauguration by train, following the same route as Lincoln had and stopping along the way to speak to crowds of supporters.
“To the children who hear the whistle of the train and dream of a better life — that’s who we’re fighting for. That’s who needs change,” Obama said at one stop along the way. “And those are the stories that we will gather with us to Washington.”
First ladies have historically done their own whistle stop tours too. Lady Bird Johnson famously carried out a whistle stop tour of the south in order to rally support for President Johnson’s civil rights agenda. Lady Bird spent four miles aboard a train which had been named the “Lady Bird Special,” traveling through eight states and covering 1,628 miles. A southerner herself, Johnson said she wanted her tour to take her “to the land where the pavement runs out and city people don’t often go.”
In 2017, Melania Trump went on what many journalists called her own whistle stop tour. The first lady visited four African nations during a week-long tour of the continent. Her trip was widely seen as an attempt to repair relationships between the Trump administration and African nations. Melania Trump’s tour was not technically a whistle stop tour, but because she made many short stops over a long distance, it was often referred to in that way.