Obama Plays Nice In Pennsylvania

04/08/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

As Barack Obama begins his courtship of Pennsylvania voters, he's getting a late start, for all three Clintons have been barnstorming the state for over three weeks. Obama's laggardly beginning has annoyed some of the two hundred-and-fifty or so people I've talked to over the weekend in western PA; at bottom, they've been afraid that he wouldn't show up for them the way he has for other states. Much to my surprise, Pennsylvanians are eager to have their voices heard--here Hillary Clinton is right. As a reporter, I may be flagging; but the citizens of Altoona, Greensburg and Johnstown are bright and eager. Obama has kicked off his campaign here with a six-day bus tour, moving west to east, from Pittsburg to Philly. What fun! I said to myself back in California. Eager to get back on the campaign trail, I kicked off those blogger bunny scuffs and hied myself straight to the Keystone State.

Obama has tweaked the tone of his campaign since Texas. Given the nastiness of the contest of late, he is always careful now to praise Senator Clinton, and it is clear from the way he inserts a compliment into every town hall meeting and speech, that this is part of his daily "to do" list. The subject came up naturally at the town hall meeting in Johnstown on Saturday, when a man asked Senator Obama if he thought the country was becoming an oligarchy, with only two families possibly running things for twenty-eight years (Yes, his math was off.) But Obama didn't second the man's comment; instead he asserted that "Senator Clinton should be judged on her own merits," and he refused to be drawn into the laughter this response provoked. In many ways, Obama's attitude is nothing new, for he has always treated Senator Clinton better than she has dealt with him. A revealing difference is that, almost without exception, Obama has always referred to Hillary Clinton by her name--always--while Senator Clinton and Bill Clinton almost always call Obama "my opponent." In the three weeks I was in Texas, for example, I never heard either Clinton utter Obama's name.

Contributing to the tone of the campaign now is Obama's assertion, which he also works into every appearance, that the way the contest has gone on so long is a plus positive. Here is how he put it in a formal speech before 20,000 people (actually, not that many showed up--it was a very cold day) on the great lawn before Old Main Building at Penn State: "The primary has gone on a little bit long. There have been people who've been voicing some frustration. They've been saying the campaigns have been going at it--back and forth--and we feel like the initial hopefulness that we had is kinda slipping away. I want everybody to understand--this has been a great contest , great for America. It's engaged and involved people like never before. I think it's terrific that Senator Clinton's supporters have been as passionate as my supporters have been. Because that means the people are invested and engaged in the process--and I am absolutely confident that when this primary season is all over, Democrats will be united because we understand what is at stake in this election."

If sunny optimism is the face of Obama Pennsylvania, everything else about the Senator and his campaign now coalesces around polarities. Bob Casey, who is traveling on the bus, always introduces Obama as "a fighter" and "the underdog." But of course Obama is topdog/underdog. And he is way too laid back to be a fighter. A question he got in Johnstown was what he has learned during the campaign. After several truisms ("The American people have so much in common wherever you go"), Obama made this revealing admission. "I've always thought I had a calm temper. And during this campaign, I've learned that I really am calm." For a man who travels in a phalanx of Secret Service protection (there must be a dozen red-pinned agents, as opposed to plain-clothes, with him now), Obama is indeed a remarkably serene individual.

Obama is a canny survivor--in many ways the politician of whom he reminds me most is Octavian--and one of the ways he keeps going is through humor and laughter. There's been lots of that in Pennsylvania. Last night before a packed house in Harrisburg, he was cracking one joke after another, some of them extempore., and using his humor to keep the obstreperous, sometimes nearly out-of-control crowd, in hand. Despite all these positive vibes, Obama's message rides on a dark undercurrent. He always begins his remarks by saying that "there is such a thing as being too late, and that hour is almost upon us." In the end, "the fierce urgency of now" is his own. Here is a man whose parents, both of them, died relatively young. That fact as much as anything seems to drive his ambition and also his sense of connection with Lincoln. In his desire to bring a riven nation together, Obama has planted himself in Lincoln's footsteps. Before the crowd at Penn State in University Park, Obama spoke of Lincoln and his signing the university into existence via land grant (Indeed the beautiful Old Main building is inscribed "July 2, 1862--signed A. Lincoln. ") Obama ruminated about the Lincoln top hat that the university owns and how "some people are allowed to see it" (Whether he was so allowed, he never said.)

So Barack Obama is now the alpha dog underdog laid back candidate with a sense of urgency who loves the long campaign despite his frequent comment that "babies have been born and learned to walk and talk since I began running ." This is Obama the candidate and Obama the man now--the same and yet different than when I left him in Texas. (Clearly, he had hoped to put Senator Clinton away there or in Ohio.) The bus tour itself is another story.

"No," Jen says. "I'm sorry. Afraid not. The Secret Service, you know." Obama Communications has put the kabosh on my trusty rental car and me. We are not going to be allowed to follow the Obama "Road to Change" bus tour. But here I am in Johnstown, the town hall meeting is finished, and I'd like to tag along for all the interesting and unscripted stops the bus will make during the afternoon. I well remember Bill and Al and the wives on the bus in '92. I remember thinking on the day they set off, this is really cool--Americans are going to love it--this guy is the next president of the United States. The Clintons' autobiographies recount chance single encounters as well as "thousands of people" lining the road and filling the fields. Hillary Clinton tells the story of how her husband would yell "Stop the bus!" so often that after awhile Al Gore, seeing one solitary soul by the side of the road, would intone, "I feel a sojourn coming on."

Times have changed. The iconic American road trip is no longer possible for a candidate with a serious hope of the Presidency. The Obama "bus tour" is a caravan of state trooper cars, Secret Service agents crammed into SUVs, a pooled press bus (the second press bus goes on to the evening's caravanserai ) and Obama's Greyhound, which has been "securified" into the sort of quasi-military vehicle that pops up in action movies. It's not hard to follow such a procession around the highways and byways of Pennsylvania. What's the worst that could happen to me? Impound me. (I've begun to think of myself, as well as Obama, in canine terms. I'm that unwanted stray that bounds after the departing family car.)

Well, I'm wrong. The worst is roadkill. It turns out that the Obama bus tour is a road hazard. Inexplicably, the procession chooses to putt-putt along in the fast lane of Pennsylvania's mostly two-lane highways. Is this somehow better protection against woodland snipers? If so, the rest of the traffic refuses to act as buffer. Cars pile up in the slow lane, afraid to pass the flashing patrol cars in the inside lane. So everybody motors along in tandem, with fast-approaching cars hitting the brakes behind the caboose patrol car, before choosing either to fall in line behind the rest of us or to run the gauntlet and pass on the right. I experience two near-misses and their accompanying adrenalin rushes. This wasn't the kind of adventure I had in mind. Saturday afternoon the Obama cavalcade winds about for an hour-and-a-half. The man has just spoken about our need for a new energy policy, and here he is in a vehicle that must get a mile to the gallon. I'm noticing this because I'm cross--I'm hungry and I have to pee. It's after 4 o'clock--don't these people ever get hungry?

The cavalcade finally leaves the highway for the town of Altoona, cruising swiftly through the deserted downtown before stopping before the small storefront of Altoon'a Texas Hot Dogs. This would seem to be an impromptu pit stop, and certainly Altoona has not been expecting Barack. Indeed, as I quickly discover, Altoonans have been aggrieved that they have been left out of the campaign's west-state itinerary. The Saturday Altoona Mirror runs the headline, "Presidential Candidates Ignore Blair" (Altoona is in Blair County.) For the next two hours, I stand across the street from Texas Hot Dogs, along with the fifty-or-so Altoonans who had walked downtown with a late-afternoon weiner yen. We are trapped, for the Secret Service (nine of them in the deserted street alone, more in the alley and out back) have barricaded us in with yellow plastic crime scene tape. After awhile, a portly Secret Service agent in a much-admired green tie steps in to wand everybody down. For me, this is a golden opportunity to talk to people about the election. Here is a perfect group--brought together by a liking not for a particular candidate but for hot dogs. The problem with interviewing people at a rally or a town hall meeting is that such events tend to be self-selecting, in that they draw mostly folks who already support the candidate. And particularly this late in the campaign, supporters' remarks are less and less probative.

The first thing I discover is that--not surprisingly, since Altoona has fallen on hard times--the town has a drug problem. Upon seeing the patrol cars, the Altoonans had assumed a drug bust. The second thing I heard--and had already heard elsewhere in western PA and would hear again--is an intense dislike of Governor Rendell. Bob Casey is the man in western Pennsylvania, and he is about the best thing to happen to Barack Obama lately (I may have to eat my words dismissing the value of endorsements.) And it's not just that westerners love Casey; it's also that Casey and Obama seem to have hit if off big time in a way that goes beyond their shooting hoops together every morning. So the Altoonans are almost as happy to wait two hours to shake Casey's hand as Obama's. The third thing I learn is just how wary Obama staffers have become of random press--and internet media in particular (From Texas to Pennsylvania, they act like they've been taken out into the yard and birched.) Max, a western field director for the campaign, is talking to friends inside the cordon when I come up to shake his hand and introduce myself. He looks at me suspiciously and says, pointing to the press bus, "We already have press." And then he says, nodding to his friends, "Everything I've been telling them is off-the-record." What he's been telling them is that he was surprised, when looking up Texas Hot Dogs on his Blackberry, that there is another one out in the mall by Macy's. When he turns to go, I ask him if Texas Hot Dogs is famous. "I wouldn't know," he says, "I've never heard of it before."

Eventually, licking their lips, Obama and Casey do emerge from Texas Hot Dogs and spend some time with the little cordon. After the caravan departs (for an hour of Altoona bowling, as it turns out--more on the bowlers and their opinions tomorrow), we street people rush for the storefront. Inside I find not only that a hot dog costs $1.36 ($1.41 with cheese) but that the seemingly-impromptu stop has been planned well-in-advance. Two days before, Secret Service agents had talked to the owner and cased the place. He, of course, had been sworn to silence. The night before, a local agent (probably out of Harrisburg) had spent the night there. He remains behind for supper after the Obama entourage leaves and talks with the waitress over pie. Diners are quietly pleased with themselves about Obama's visit, and all the talk is about how funny he was and how long he stayed and how he spent time with folks at every table. The interesting thing is that these folk have the same calm that imbues Obama. There's a small town atmosphere--everybody knows everybody else, children are well-behaved, old people get respect--everybody know who they are and who their neighbors are (Not that everybody is registered to vote, but that's another story.) This is such a vanishing piece of Americana that I feel privileged to be eating a hot dog in otherwise deserted downtown Altoona on a Saturday night. Of course, there are those drug dealers out there somewhere, and I find myself looking right and left--and me, a longtime resident of Oakland!--as I head for my car.

There's the light and the dark everywhere--and not just in Obama, or in the campaigns. It's clear now that the Obama bus tour is not going to be an impromptu adventure. He is never going to be able to stop for cider at a roadside stand. We know what could happen--and not just because we all saw the movie Babel last year. That's the riven world in which we live, the divided country Barack Obama is calmly determined to bring together.

[Tomorrow: Pennsylvanians talk to me about the candidates. Obama Wants to Put the Country, Including That Portly Secret Service Agent, on a Diet.]