Joe Biden and the Lackawanna Blues

On Wednesday morning Joe Biden shuffled into Scranton, Pennsylvania, a couple hours’ drive south from my place in Ithaca, New York. He spoke at the city’s Cultural Center housed in a monumental, neo-Gothic building that was once the Masonic Temple and Scottish Rite Cathedral, completed in 1928, the year before the Great Depression. Scranton, and most of industrial America, has never reclaimed those glory days, and, despite his slogans, Biden will not usher them in should his white teeth succeed to the White House.

There are still many wonderful Victorian and early twentieth buildings in Scranton that haven’t been razed to make way for the downtown’s numerous parking lots and garages, and non-descript one-story shop fronts, many of them vacant. These remaining architectural treasures are crowned by the Masonic Temple and the magnificent nineteenth-century court house two blocks south on Washington Avenue. The court house is entered between statues of Christopher Columbus and George Washington on either side of Veterans Plaza, which fronts the avenue. Neither statue is likely to be pulled from its plinth any time soon. For a century, including this Columbus Day just past, a wreath of honor has been placed at the base of monument, the Great Discoverer’s right hand extended westward, pointing past a RiteAid and Subway across the Washington and out towards the rest of America still to be conquered, civilized, gerrymandered. Manifest Destiny is alive and well in Lackawanna County, whose population is 87% white, 7% Hispanic, and a 2.5% each for African-Americans and Asian-Americans. The Native Americans are gone, leaving only the place name behind. Lackawanna is said to mean “streams that fork” in the Lenape language, though with presidential candidates now traipsing through the swing state (Trump was in Pittsburgh on Wednesday while Biden was in Scranton) one wants to ask how you say “tongues that fork” in Lenape.

Continue from the court house past the Scottish Rite Cathedral and out another twenty blocks and you come to the modest clapboard house Biden lived in during his first decade: 2446 North Washington Avenue. He proudly recited that address at the beginning of his remarks on Wednesday. Suddenly he was the little boy again, strayed from his route home from school, and momentarily disoriented, telling the stranger where he lived, where safety lay. His long-term memory, however selective when it comes to political words and deeds (cf. “lynching” as applied by him to Clinton’s impeachment back in 1998, and decried by him when more recently uttered by of Republicans), is intact; his short-term faculties less so.

One might also have thought that an appearance at a Masonic Temple was a risky move, sure to fuel already rampant Dan Brown-style conspiracy theories about latter-day Templar technicians wiping servers clean from Malta to Mukachevo.

In Scranton a few hundred supporters showed up to welcome Biden back. Thumping the hometown tub creates the big beat of patriotism: be so proud of your hometown that its young will ship off to foreign wars in its supposed defense. Biden began his 45-minute remarks by declaring how “happy” he was to be “home” and ended with a last-second shout to “support our troops!”

As supporters queued up in front of the temple, a cohort of Trumpites was busy making America great just across Biden’s own Washington Avenue. Among the Biden faithful there was one black man among the mostly elderly white folks.

Lackawanna County was carried by Obama back in 2008 and 2012, the second time around with a margin of victory only surpassed in the state in urban Philadelphia. It was an astounding result for the incumbent, especially when one recalls the joke that circulates around the liberal, university bastions of the region, places like Ithaca: “What’s between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia? … Mississippi.” The designation Pennsyltucky is a different version of the same “joke,” the kind of bigoted slur that many liberals have no problem making.

But Trump conquered Lackawanna in 2016, and radical centrists like Biden see it as a bell weather in this crucial electoral state. Whether the 2020 election goes Democratic or Republican, the county is conservative, patriotic, white.

While repeatedly declaring his love for his birthplace Biden, quickly qualified his ardor by admitting that it was “presumptuous” to claim it as his hometown. “But no matter how long you live here,” he assured himself and his listeners, “ it climbs into your heart and occupies you.” The rhetoric of military interventionism is so ingrained in his diction that it infects even his nostalgic reveries. “So many people you know are from Scranton,” he told the Scrantonites, in a deft display of his legendary gifts for tautology.

Over the first twenty minutes of the speech he recounted the straitened circumstances of his boyhood, the family’s exodus from Scranton to Delaware and the lessons his parents taught him about resilience and self-esteem. It was a touching, heartfelt speech, including the ode to his mother, a Scranton native who spent her first thirty-years in the city. She inculcated in her son a refusal to be defeated by the class system. “No one is better than you, Joey,” his mother told him. “But never forget, everyone is your equal.” For his last decade she moved in with her famous son and his family, just as Biden’s grandfather had lived with the young Joe when he growing up. One wonders if Hunter will take in Dad when the time comes, not too distant, it would seem, given the candidates mix of comic gaffs, costly memory slips, and canny political maneuver.

The warmth of these stories mostly off the beaten track of campaign trail blather was rather weakened by canned quotations from Kierkegaard and Hagar the Horrible, the latter’s lessons meant bizarrely to reassure the beleaguered Scrantonites.

From this homespun talk, Biden eventually pivoted to his stump speech about the devastating rise of social divisions, the decline of civic and national pride, the impossibility under Trump of believing you could still become economically better off than your parents. The now-embattled American Dream was one Biden had lived and still believed in, though he blithely ignored the use of his own political muscles in tightening the vice on indebted families and the bleeding of our people and resources in foreign wars he has supported. The speech concluded with the necessary military notes, with stern words for Trump pulling out of Syria and ignoring his military advisers.

There was no music before the event, no walk-on tune to rile up the already enthusiastic hometown crowd. Biden’s repertoire of campaign music is concocted of pure political calculation—algorithm and blues. The playlist is split down the middle between black and white artists, classics alongside stuff to ingratiate himself with the youth vote—from the working man’s grit of Springsteen to the diva of self-love and folly, Lady Gaga. Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, and Stevie Wonder are drafted to pander shamelessly for the black vote. From that same playlist, Biden’s handlers drew Jackie Wilson’s 1967 hit “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” piped in in Scranton after he called out to the troops.

This retrospective musical impulse cast back not half a century to the year the song topped the R & B charts, but back only a dozen years, to 2008 when Obama used the tune on the campaign trail and won in Lackawanna.

Even after Biden’s “hometown” triumph, one doubts that Wilson’s or any other voice can carry his numbers Higher and Higher.

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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