You've probably heard of my hometown, Scranton, Pa., even if you've never been there. Among other things, Scranton is a frequent punch line and butt of jokes. The Farrelly brothers set their movie "Kingpin" in Scranton and made it look more depressing than it is. On "The Sopranos," Boston was once derided as "Scranton with crabs." When my mother told me that the American version of "The Office" will be set in Scranton, I didn't have the heart to tell her what it means to be the U.S. version of Slough, England. But I think she already knows; she's been a Scrantonian much longer than I have been.
You may have heard of Scranton for other reasons, too. It once supplied the world with anthracite coal, was the second-largest steel-producing city, and one of the first, before New York even, to electrify its streets. Now, a massive plunge down the economic ladder later, the Scranton area stores garbage from New York and New Jersey -- it comes by the truckload -- in a landfill that's such an attraction, a local radio station hosted a chili cookoff there.
But Scranton is most famous these days for being a frequent stop on the presidential hustings. Scranton, and towns all over Iowa and New Hampshire can relate to this, is one of those passed-over places that become a must-visit for candidates when it's time to choose a president. It wasn't like this when I was a kid and Pennsylvania was safely a Democratic state. Hugh Rodham was a Scrantonian, and when he died in 1993, Hillary and Bill came to town, which was a very big deal. But with Pennsylvania now a battleground, visits from John Kerry and George W. Bush are so frequent, they are yawn-inspiring. Both candidates made northeastern Pennsylvania their first campaign stop after their nominating conventions this past summer. Bush has visited Pennsylvania 18 times this campaign, more than any other state, and Scranton and the surrounding towns -- what we call "up and down the line" -- have factored in to Bush's electoral formula. If Bush can steal Pennsylvania from Kerry, and some pollsters say he might just do that, then victory on Tuesday is likely his.
It's ironic to see Scranton become now the subject of so much national interest, to see powerful men lavish so much attention on a city that has been so neglected for so long. Scranton has been mocked for a reason, cruel and unnecessary as it is. To grow up in Scranton was to know that your hometown was in decline. You couldn't miss it. Year after year, the downtown became less vibrant. Stores boarded up one after the other. You'd drive through your neighborhood and notice more people weren't keeping up with yards grown mangy with weeds. They weren't replacing the siding on their houses, letting it crack and peel. There was less money for such things. Jobs were leaving town, heading to Mexico or overseas or wherever. It didn't matter where they went -- they weren't coming back.
My parents' generation grew up with the belief that they could always get a decent job working with their hands or doing a trade if they weren't college material. But over the years, good-paying jobs -- union jobs -- moved away, and were replaced by low-paying ones like telemarketing. And for those of us who were college material, staying became less possible, despite all of Scranton's unique and endearing qualities -- its mountainous beauty, sense of safety, and small-city intimacy. It's something my parents, who still live within six blocks of where they grew up, could probably never fathom until it happened. For their children to pursue their dreams, they had to leave Scranton -- home -- where generations of our relatives have lived. And so my two sisters and I and countless of our former schoolmates and friends have settled elsewhere.
The Bush years have felt particularly harsh. Scranton isn't home to many of the "haves and have-mores," as Bush jokingly once called "his base." Scrantonians aren't reaping the benefits of corporate welfare or tax cuts for the super-rich. And yet, Scranton, the hometown of the late pro-life governor Bob Casey, is a heavily Catholic city with conservative values, and Bush's cultural message has resonance. In a classic conservative strategy exposed in Thomas Frank's recent book, "What's the Matter With Kansas?" Bush has the religious vote in mind with his repeated trips to the area, even though the loyally Democratic Scranton went twice for Bill Clinton, and for Al Gore in 2000. But even in a Catholic town like Scranton, this election is about so much more than abortion. There's jobs and the economy, of course -- always Scranton's No. 1 priority. But there's also the dear price Scranton is paying for Bush's military and foreign-policy blunders.
On "Hardball" last week, Scranton mayor Chris Doherty (Chris Matthews called him a "nice mick" from "one of the historic places of the universe") counted five city employees serving in Iraq. "A lot of people from Scranton, this is the Army, the military, is a way they make the bills meet," Doherty said. "They're weekend warriors. And now they're over there fighting for their lives." Where my mother works, they had cake out in the plant earlier this year when two young men who serve in the National Guard were sent off for their tour of duty in Iraq, one as a convoy escort. It was an emotional send-off, for everyone knew the danger that awaited their colleagues in towns like Fallujah and Ramadi. It was also well-known that no WMDs were found in Iraq. Not only was there a chance these young men would never make it back to Scranton -- it was less clear why they had to face such risk.
It's a scenario that has played out over and over again in struggling cities just like Scranton, where young people looking for a way out, some extra cash, a chance for an education and a decent job, join the service trusting that politicians will make judicious, prudent decisions about military action. Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" was most powerful when evoking this dynamic of Bush's war in Iraq. "Fahrenheit" opened in a movie theater in Scranton on the weekend it opened across the country -- this doesn't happen with all movies -- to sold-out crowds. I was surprised. When I was in high school, "The Last Temptation of Christ" was banned from Blockbusters because it was too controversial. But these are different times, and George W. Bush is no Jesus Christ.
When it comes to the most poignant moments of Moore's indictment of Bush -- the bombed-out streets of Flint juxtaposed with military recruiting in the mall parking lot, and disillusioned families wondering why their children had to die -- Scranton can relate. Don't get me wrong, Scranton is better off than Moore's hometown, especially these days with that energetic "nice mick" as mayor. But the principle is the same. Under the Bush administration, Scranton has reaped too few rewards and has found itself shouldering too much of the burden for his war and for his economic policies. As my mother said of the president, "What does he think, we're fools?"
Well, yes, Mother, and he's depending on it. Scrantonians, a self-deprecating lot, are used to being the butt of jokes -- but we are also proud, and we prefer to make the jokes ourselves.