Barack Obama's town hall meeting in Levittown, PA, yesterday was, in the sphere of political conversation, the epilogue to Michael Sokolove's fine essay in the New York Times Sunday magazine blending a reminiscence of the changes in Levittown since his childhood there with an analysis of Obama's chances with Levittown voters. At a fundraiser in San Francisco Sunday night, Obama dismissed Sokolove's conclusion that blue collar Levittown might not be quite ready to vote for a black man. "People are misunderstanding the way the demographics in this contest are broken up the way they are. Because everybody just ascribes it to white working class don't want to vote for the black guy. There were intimations of this in an article in the Sunday New York Times today--kind of implies it's sort of a race thing. That's not what it is."
If that's not what it is--then what is it? For two hours, I talked to people waiting for the doors at Levittown's Harry S. Truman High School to open for the Obama event. The conversations would seem to support both Sokolove's and Obama's realistic appraisal that Levittown is not Obama Country. Obama's analysis of his cool reception from the working class is that it stems from a feeling of having been betrayed by government and subsequent cynicism. But it's precisely this cynicism that makes men like Ed and Frank, both Vietnam Veterans and union electricians, willing to take a flyer on Obama. In their estimation, Hillary and Bill Clinton are part of the world's wealthy ruling class that "knows exactly what they're doing but not telling us." Like many people in line--and indeed Americans everywhere--Ed and Frank said that "we need somebody new."
Most of the Levittown town hall meeting crowd were older folk, and many of them were from New Jersey. It's only a 20-30 minute drive from Princeton to Levittown, so Princetoners have been working for Obama in and around Levittown and lower Bucks County. When I asked Afton, a pet shop owner in Princeton, if she thought Obama was right about Levittown and race, she replied, "he hasn't been on the canvass." Both she and her husband, who is determined to sell Obama on Rhodesian ridgebacks as the dogs of choice for his daughters, shook their heads. "A lot of white men are not voting for him here." Debbie, a former army brat and currently a worker for peacecoalition.org, concurred. "There's a lot of misinformation--Muslim, that he'll subvert the Pentagon." Debbie said that some of her neighbors had re-registered as Republicans just so they wouldn't have to vote for either Obama or Clinton.
Indeed larger Levittown itself seemed to be absent from the Levittown town hall meeting. The group that came out in force to see Obama were the local teachers, the people who hold communities like Levittown and its neighbor Bristol together. Many of these teachers were women and Clinton supporters who nevertheless wanted to hear Obama before finally making up their minds. Melissa, a teacher at Truman High, said that she was for Clinton because "men have messed up things too much." And, yes, "race and gender are not irrelevant" in Levittown, but "I hope we're not that shallow." Jo Ann, another local teacher, described herself as "an open-minded supporter of Hillary Clinton." She felt that Clinton had the most detailed plan to overhaul No Child Left Behind. When I pointed out that Clinton wants to "scrap" N.C.L.B. and that Obama wants to "overhaul" it, Jo Ann said she didn't see much difference, but that she'd be interested to hear what Obama had to say about education.
In the subsequent town hall meeting, Senator Obama did talk about education, as he always does, although for the Levittown and Bristol teachers he wasn't as detailed and specific, or as impassioned, as he can be on the need to improve education in America. He had arrived late at Truman High and was a bit rushed. This may have been one of those missed opportunities to which all campaigns, due to the rigors of the road, succumb. Having followed the Obama Campaign for almost a year, I have come to believe that education is the lodestar for the direction in which Obama wants to take us. The significant moment in Levittown yesterday was Obama's comment that we must be "willing to sacrifice on the behalf of future generations." As I've written before, the call to sacrifice has been a chord, at first muted, now louder, in Obama's speeches from the beginning. But Levittown was the first time I've heard him say anything more specific about that sacrifice--and the implications of "future generations" for a place like Levittown are many and not least in the field of education.
The one thing everybody waiting in line to hear Senator Obama agreed on is that change is in the air. Lower Bucks County is going Democrat (despite the neighbors who have re-registered as Republicans), Central Bucks County is going Democrat--all Bucks is going Democrat. The reality is that the white working class guys who won't vote for a black guy, or a woman, are getting old and slowly passing on. With the loss of manufacturing jobs, Levittown may be dying, but new and different towns are sprouting nearby. Everybody talked about the growing African-American communities and the million-dollar homes five minutes away. Lower Bucks County is becoming a bedroom community for people with good jobs in Manhattan, a 50-minute train ride. These commuters are, in a spiritual if not a literal sense, the children and grandchildren of the aging Levittowners, a more prosperous generation who have been able to afford bigger and better homes than those in the tracts of Levittown and Bristol Township. Perhaps someday, long after Barack Obama is President but as a consequence of his policies, a well-educated work force with twenty-first century jobs will appraise the beautiful bones of Levittown and Bristol with an eye to tearing down the old tract houses and building for a newer and greener world. Nothing lasts--everything passes away--change is inexorable. In the light of this paradoxically immutable truth, Barack Obama is right to focus in the distance, beyond racism in places like Levittown, lest he get mired in the here and now.