The Road to the White House Is Hempstead Turnpike

A pamphlet advertising the “National Center for Suburban Studies” was among the souvenirs Hofstra University distributed to reporters covering the final 2008 presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain on Oct. 15. The pamphlet’s back cover consisted of green-tinted cars commuting in heavy traffic. Travelers attending the debate from the city encountered a sign on the Northern State Parkway that read “Pres Debate at Hofstra U. Expect Delays.”

The most eventful and dramatic presidential campaign in living memory had its last confrontation in a part of the world known mostly for its traffic problems.

“It is odd when events like this come to Long Island,” said Dee Snider, a Long Island native and the former frontman of Twisted Sister. “I always thought that they should put a ‘no outlet’ sign over the Midtown Tunnel because no matter how far you go out, you have to turn around and head back just to escape.”

Once lambasted by hippies as a soul-killing suburban wasteland, then drooled over by tabloid editors for all its Amy Fisher-Joey Buttafuoco (or, later, Michael Lohan, or Peter Cook) sordidness, Long Island has gone from blindingly white Republican paradise (“When a Republican dies and goes to heaven, it looks a lot like Nassau County,” Ronald Reagan once said,) to a demographically unrecognizable political bellwether.

Hempstead, the town in which Wednesday night’s debate to decide the next leader of the free world was held, is confronting a massive drug and crime problem. Nearby Terrace Avenue is a virtual no-go zone. One Democratic operative who works in the area said that if you want to eat, you go to "Wings and Things" down the block. “Or to McDonalds, but you can get a real good sandwich at the mall.”

Much more than William Faulkner’s sleepy idyllic Oxford, Mississippi, or the faux gothic stone buildings of Washington University in St. Louis, where two of the previous debates were held, this Long Island, like it or not, actually looks like most everywhere else in America. With its charmless box stores, and dilapidated low-slung architecture, its shortage of pedestrians and abundance of red lights where you can make a right turn, its video stores that rent mostly video games, its fast food joints and pride in kind of famous or faded actors (Billy Baldwin! Andy Kaufman! Eddie Murphy!), drive-through Long Island resembles the flyover states that the candidates visited and revisited on the campaign trail.

“It’s just amazing how much the country all looks like Long Island,” said Snider, who travels a lot in his capacity as a March of Dimes spokesman. “I don’t know if they copied us or we copied them.”

And Long Island, or at least Hofstra, appreciated it. And they worked hard to get it.

Senator Chuck Schumer lobbied to get it. So, at the time anyway, did Governor Eliot Spitzer. Hillary Clinton didn’t because she didn’t think it would be appropriate, because she thought she would be debating. Instead she watched from the audience. The university argued that it was credible because it had held a long-running series of conferences with surviving American presidents. The school took “tremendous” care in filling out its applications in 2007, according to Hofstra’s president, Stuart Rabinowitz, and emphasized the area’s historic importance.

“This is the nation’s oldest suburb,” Rabinowitz said, adding that it was “right next door to Levittown, which was the American dream after WWII.”

But the Hofstra pitch was also a dark one. The debate should be held in Hempstead because Hempstead was the future, and the future looked bleak. A “mature suburb” like this one, Rabinowitz said, was going through tough times. Rabinowitz himself moved to the Island in 1978 after living in the Bronx and then Queens. He was in search of green lawns and baseball fields to raise his kids. But now he said the suburban sprawl had devoured the open spaces that had attracted so many away from the cities. Young people, he said, couldn’t afford to live here and buy their own homes. Transportation problems made commuting more difficult.

“Whatever issues suburbs have,” said Rabinowitz. “We are leading the pack.”

But the Commission on Presidential Debates, which inspected the grounds in June, liked what they saw.

“Hofstra?” said Snider. “It’s far from the shorelines and surrounded by big highways and malls and trapped. Lot of concrete.” Other natives offered a more generous perspective.

“Here we are in the shadow of the eighth wonder of the world: Roosevelt Field,” said Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank after revealing to colleague Howard Fineman of Newsweek in the media center that he grew up only “five miles from here.” Milbank said that Roosevelt Field might be the “prototype” for the modern American shopping mall, and wasn’t sure if the field from which Charles Lindbergh took off for his transatlantic flight was now a Barnes and Noble or a Fortunoff. He compared Hempstead’s strategic position between such major streams of vehicular traffic as the Northern State and the Southern State, the Meadowbrook Parkway and the Long Island Expressway, as being “between the Tigris and the Euphrates.”

The Road to the White House Is Hempstead Turnpike