Time was when Scranton was known for anthracite coal, America’s first electric streetcar system, and what is said to be the nation’s most heavily Irish population. The last decade, though, has done strange things to the popular image of this old northeastern Pennsylvania city. Today, Joe Biden’s birthplace may be best known to the general public as the desolate home of The Office’s Dunder-Mifflin Paper Co., and to viewers of Saturday Night Live’s Biden parody as “a hellhole,” “an awful, awful sad place, filled with sad, desperate people with no ambition,” and “the absolute worst place on Earth.”
Along with the derision, though, Scranton is also being subjected to a degree of political attention that might seem excessive even in a town with ten times its 72,000 population. The local Congressional election features a nationally watched battle between incumbent Democrat Paul Kanjorski and insurgent Republican Lou Barletta, an anti-immigration campaigner whose supporters wear hats announcing their membership in “Barletta’s Border Patrol.” In the presidential race, likewise, the city has been dubbed the Peoria of 2008--its blue-collar, Catholic voters a bellwether for working class white people everywhere. John McCain was here two weeks ago. Sarah Palin will be at the Riverside Sports Arena on Tuesday. And Sunday, it was the Democrats’ turn in the same facility as Joe Biden and Bill and Hillary Clinton stumped together on behalf of Barack Obama.
Not that the candidate’s name came up very often. Obama was thumped here during the primary, and if his running mate, the woman he ran against, or the 42nd president believes the way to avert a repeat is to attest to the Illinois Senator’s personal virtues, they weren’t letting it on. Instead, their three speeches were full of Democratic red meat about foreclosures, jobs, Republican perfidy, and war. Obama’s name was scarcely mentioned without being conjoined with his running mate as part of “Barack and Joe.” There wasn’t so much as a single sweet anecdote about how the Democratic standard-bearer is a great family man or a stand-up friend or a tribune of the people. “It took a Democratic president to clean up after the last President Bush,” Hillary declared in one applause line. “It’s going to take a Democratic president to clean up after this president.” But there wasn’t much by way of specifics on that Democratic cleaner-upper.
And maybe that was OK. Between them, Hillary and Biden laid out a pretty compelling case for electing any Democrat to the White House. Hillary’s mechanical certainty about health care and taxes and economic crisis went over big even without what would inevitably come across as phony testimonials on behalf of Obama’s character. At any rate, Obama had better hope that the path to Hillary supporters’ votes comes not in warm fuzzies but in lines like: “I haven’t spent 35 years in the trenches fighting for universal health care, for children, for families, for women, for middle class people to see another Republican in the White House squander the promise of our nation and the hopes of our people.” That’s what the good voters of Scranton heard from her today.
Biden technically represents Delaware in the Senate, but is a perfect aesthetic match for his old home town. Scranton, whose golden age of industrial wealth came and went before Obama was even born, looks like a town where someone pressed “pause” decades ago. And, from across the room, Biden looked like a grainy movie image of an old-time political orator, gesticulating and shouting and shaking his fists to the delight of the crowd. His litany, too, touched on the standard gripes of Democrats, from the Bush administration and the negative tone of the McCain campaign (“I guess when you vote for George Bush 90 percent of the time, all you can do is attack 100 percent of the time”) to McCain’s quickly recanted assertion about the strong fundamentals of the American economy (“That’s what we Catholics call an epiphany … but what John saw was not the light. It was the presidency receding from his grasp.”). Biden’s economic riff did let him segue into the afternoon’s one piece of specific praise for his running mate, where he contrasted “the steady hand of Barack Obama” to McCain’s “lurching from mistake to mistake.”
Yet for all of Scranton’s allegedly middle-American focus on the economy, Biden’s biggest applause line--by far--was this red-faced exhortation: “Read my lips. We will end this war.”
Scranton makes a convenient place to think about the march of history and the people that march inevitably leaves behind. Over the past few weeks, Bill Clinton has started to seem like one of those people. Clinton spoke first, drawing big cheers before leaving early to travel to Virginia to campaign for Obama. His short comments included an oddly lawyerly defense of his wife against the--long since vanished--charge that she’s not doing enough for the ticket. “She has not only done more to support him than any runner-up in the Democratic primary process in my lifetime, she has done more than all the other runner-ups combined,” he said, which is sort of silly when you consider who those runner-ups were. “That says a lot about why she ran for President and what she believes in.”
Clinton, whose words could be picked apart endlessly, took pains to praise Obama: “the best ideas … the best instincts,” as well as, ahem, “the best supporting cast.” But much of his talk felt sort of valedictory. He mentioned that he and Hillary had celebrated their 33rd anniversary a day earlier. “No matter what happens to us from now on out, we’re leaving this old world ahead,” he said. “You’ve been good enough to us and fortune has smiled on us.” Both before and after he spoke, Jill Biden and Joe Biden and Hillary all sang the praises of his administration, with its eight years of prosperity and its 22 million new jobs and its “putting people first” and its “spring reborn.” But as he spoke today, with the stock market crumbling and seeming to threaten basic pillars of the postindustrial affluence that peaked during Clinton’s administration, it all seemed very long ago.
If Obama wins, and is then both lucky and good, some new era of prosperity may come to be associated with him. Bill Clinton, though, will likely seem a vestige of some very different era of unimaginable economic luxury. Watching him and Hillary campaign for the man who would be the 44th president ultimately has a surreal, anachronistic feel--the one you might get if you found an old picture of Dwight Eisenhower campaigning for the GOP in 1968, or learned that his wife Mamie had sought the nomination against Nixon that same year. They were only eight years out of the White House, too.
In Scranton, though, that out-of-time-feeling is no handicap. And Bill Clinton can still bring down the house.
Michael Schaffer is the author of the upcoming One Nation Under Dog.