Indiana has long been known as the Crossroads of America.

Centrally located in the path of highways, railroads and other forms of transportation, it is squarely in the route of those traveling east-to-west or north-to-south. And despite its reputation as a smaller state, it has found itself equally important in the political aspirations of presidents since the 1860s.

“We were more a factor in certain elections than I expected. I knew Indiana had been a battleground state in the early 20th century, but it was more important than I thought, even in more contemporary times,” said Andrew Stoner, author of “Campaign Crossroads: Presidential Politics in Indiana from Lincoln to Obama.”

Stoner, a Franklin College graduate, has explored Indiana’s role in presidential campaigns since the time of Abraham Lincoln. “Campaign Crossroads” unearths unique anecdotes and illustrations of how the state is ingrained in presidential history.

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Robert F. Kennedy sharing the news to a group of mostly black residents in Indianapolis that Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot in 1968. Ronald Reagan declining to shake hands or kiss babies during a campaign stop in Fort Wayne, citing concerns about germs.

Estes Kefauver, who was vying for the Democratic nomination in 1956, pulling the ultimate campaign-trail mistake in Franklin when he told the crowd how happy he was to be in Alexandria.

Stoner will be at Franklin College today to discuss the book and the political tidbits he was able to uncover.

“It traces through big parts of American history,” Stoner said. “For people who enjoy politics or journalism or history, I think they’ll get a lot out of it.”

When he was 13 years old, he learned that former President Gerald Ford was going to give a speech campaigning in Goshen in 1977.

“Of course, none of my friends or my brothers or sisters wanted to go,” he said. “But I was excited about it. My mom dropped me off there by myself, and I went in. It was exciting the people came together to listen to a former president, and all the pomp-and-circumstance around that.”

Stoner graduated from Franklin College in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He later earned his master’s in journalism from Ball State and a doctorate from Colorado State University.

Currently, he works as a professor of communication at California State University, Sacramento. He also has worked for a number of newspapers, and from 2001 to 2003, he was the deputy press secretary for Gov. Frank O’Bannon, giving him first hand exposure of the political process.

All of those experiences helped lay the groundwork what would be “Campaign Crossroads.”

“I’ve been to many speaking events through my involvement in politics and journalism, and it would be interesting to go back and see how that’s played out in various communities,” he said.

Researching newspaper accounts, eyewitness testimony and other histories, Stoner started piecing together Indiana’s place in presidential politics.

Though it no longer garners the attention it once did, Indiana was considered a “battleground state” from the 1870s until the 1960s. Appealing to local residents was vital to a campaign, Stoner said.

“Nixon and Kennedy in 1960 both worked a lot of Indiana. So did Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Even the 1976 primary between Ford and Reagan, which Reagan won, revived his campaign and almost put him on track to win the nomination,” he said. “So it was very important.”

His research showed that while challengers to the presidency were common in Indiana, the state was more often looked upon by incumbents as a place to find a receptive crowd of supporters.

“This goes way back to even Theodore Roosevelt. Guys like Harry Truman and Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan all used the state quite a bit as incumbent presidents,” Stoner said. “The could count on a true-blue audience in terms of Hoosiers who turn out.”

In combing through accounts of the campaigns that visited Indiana, Stoner was also surprised by some of the unique stories that emerged. One of his favorites stems from 1948, when President Harry Truman was running for re-election. He had come to Indianapolis to meet with voters and afterward spent the night at Union Station in the presidential train car.

Truman’s press handlers had told reporters that he would be unavailable that night and would not be meeting with anyone. But he was able to sneak out of the train car to travel to Noblesville, where he helped in the initiation ceremony at the Masonic lodge.

“The young man had previously worked at the Secret Service in Washington with Truman, and Truman had accidentally seen this fellow while in Kokomo earlier in the day, where Truman learned he’d be installed as a Mason,” Stoner said. “It’s fun to me to think of the president being secreted away in the middle of the night to Noblesville, and then returned with the media none the wiser.”

The accounts that Stoner found helped personalize the presidents at key moments in their lives. Nixon came to Indianapolis in the thick of the Watergate scandal to visit his daughter, who fell ill and required surgery.

Benjamin Harrison, who was a president from Indiana, campaigned in 1892 immediately after the death of his wife.

“He said such kind words. This was a guy without any speechwriter, and he speaks in such a gentlemanly, kind way, I can’t help but admire him so much,” Stoner said. “His words about Indiana are really quite beautiful.”

Stoner’s book ends at the 2008 election, with stories about Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John McCain and Sarah Palin. Though he doesn’t cover the contentious 2016 election, which saw many candidates make their way through the state, the lessons of the past can apply to the present, he said.

“I hope they see sincerity. I still see earnestness and sincerity in our candidates. We’re going through a difficult period right now, where our president is seeing challenges that we’ve never really seen before,” he said.

If you go

“Campaign Crossroads: Presidential Politics in Indiana from Lincoln to Obama”

What: A lecture and discussion of the book with the same name by author Andrew Stoner, who focuses on Indiana’s role in presidential campaigns throughout the years.

When: 7 p.m. today

Where: Branigin Room in the Napolitan Student Center, on Franklin College’s campus off of Forsythe Street.

Cost: Free and open to the public

Where to get the book: “Campaign Crossroads” is available online at shop.indianahistory.org, and will be available to purchase at the lecture as well.

Author photo
Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at rtrares@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2727.