Some dam good thoughts for your consideration

Sept. 30 marks the 75th anniversary of the day Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated Boulder Dam, as it was then called. Recently, the Boulder City Chautauqua commemorated the occasion with “That Dam Depression,” an unforgettable gathering of historians and residents, and performances by historian Doris Dwyer as photographer Margaret Bourke-White and journalist/historian Frank Mullen as Babe Ruth.

Beyond a reminder that the Chautauqua is a creative way to learn history, the events offered other perspectives on the past, present and future.

Bourke-White was a legendary photographer whom Candice Bergen portrayed in the film Gandhi. As much as she admired the great Indian leader and advocate of non-violence, Bourke-White couldn’t understand his aversion to technology—and lamented that the Holocaust demonstrated the evils to which technology could be carried.

What would she say now? Some of you may read this on the Internet, where information and misinformation go hand-in-hand. Small wonder that lies circulate so easily—and make it difficult for the any Democrat, Republican or independent who would like to know about the opposition to discern what’s happening. Note, too, how campaigns increasingly use all of the Web’s resources, from e-mail blasts to Facebook.

Apropos of that, could Ruth survive media scrutiny today? His story is inspiring: An unmanageable boy, sent to a reformatory, becomes a great athlete and one of the most beloved, memorable figures in American sports history. But he was equally adept at carousing. Isn’t that his own business? Many reporters and editors believed so at the time.

But Ruth was a public figure, and if his carousing affected his on-field play (it sometimes did), that matters to a customer spending his or her money to watch him. Similarly, a politician’s personal life affects us when it affects his or her performance, whether it’s Sen. John Ensign’s peccadilloes demonstrating hypocrisy, or why any officeholder votes as she or he does. Considering Ruth’s incredible career, his personal life may not have mattered much. Considering their policies and how they affect or will affect us, what politicians do out of our view may matter just a little more.

As we rattled through slides of old Boulder City, Dennis McBride, the state museum’s curator of manuscripts, identified everyone and everything, while Guy Rocha, Nevada’s archivist emeritus, offered his usual wit and knowledge. Without McBride’s efforts, much of Boulder City’s history might have been lost, just as Rocha has kept watch on Nevada. Laura Kelly Smith, who came to Boulder City at the beginning with her family, the Godbeys, provided memories of growing up there.

Their words and deeds highlighted how an individual makes a difference, whether preserving an archive, building a community or casting a vote. They also remind us that without knowledge of the past, we are lost. And no sooner did they demonstrate that than the State Historic Preservation Commission revoked funding for projects designed to preserve our past. No wonder those whose failure of vision has made Nevada an economic and moral wasteland prefer to ignore history.

Michael Hiltzik spoke in conjunction with his terrific new book, Colossus: Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century (Free Press, 2010). The dam’s construction was a monument to ingenuity and hard work—and man’s inhumanity to man and the environment. Working on the dam provided jobs in the Depression. The timing actually had nothing to do with the federal government trying to help we the people—but it had the effect of easing the Depression’s impact, so call it an unintended stimulus, and it was as wrapped up in politics as anything going on today. While the lack of jobs also enabled Six Companies to treat workers like dirt, those workers welcomed the model city the government built and ran as a federal reservation, with ironclad rules.

We often make choices between security and liberty. Ben Franklin said, “Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” But Franklin never saw Hoover Dam nor lived through the Great Depression.

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