Mr. Hoover’s Dam

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Good morning, it’s Thursday, October 10, 2019. Eighty-three years ago today, a newly completed high dam first harnessed the power of the great Colorado River and began transmitting electricity to the Los Angeles basin, 250 miles away. The possibilities were many, not just for Southern California, but for the Nevada desert, which soon spawned the neon wonder we know today simply as “Vegas.”

The place has grown from a gambling mecca — though that is still very much a part of the scene — to the 28th largest U.S. city. The Las Vegas Strip remains a vast entertainment complex, an international tourist destination, and a state of mind (“What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”). Yet, the city is also a thriving western metropolis and a baseball hotbed that has produced the last two National League MVPs. These two young men, Bryce Harper and Kris Bryant, are opposing each other in the Washington Nationals-Chicago Cubs playoffs now. But they are friends who filmed a joint public service announcement to benefit their city in the wake of last week’s mass murder there.

Twenty-first century Las Vegas also boasts a sprawling, state-of-the-art convention center, a vibrant university, numerous museums, a downtown arts district, and a modern performing arts center. In constructing the Smith Center for the Performing Arts, the architects borrowed from the Depression-era art deco style of the massive water project that made it all possible. But what to call that dam, that was the question, one tinged by partisan politics.

Elected officials like getting credit for the things they do, which is a normal human desire, and even for things they don’t, a less attractive quality that seems to be a character trait common among politicians.

On May 1, 1931, for instance, Herbert Hoover pressed a button in the White House and the Empire State Building lit up for the first time. It was a publicity stunt: An on-site engineer in New York actually turned the lights on. One can hardly blame the 31st U.S. president for associating himself with the magnificence of the skyscraper, which rose 1,250 feet in the air. This was during the Great Depression, and the construction project employed more than 3,000 workers a day at a time Hoover was being blamed for not doing enough to get Americans back to work.

In truth, the corporation that erected the Empire State Building was headed by former New York Gov. Al Smith, a Democrat who had been defeated by the Republican Hoover in 1928. Smith was really the driving force behind it.

Democrats returned the favor when Franklin Roosevelt was in the White House. The state-of-the-art water project being constructed along the Arizona-Nevada border had been named “Hoover Dam” by the Hoover administration’s interior secretary. But in 1933, Roosevelt administration Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes changed the name back to its original concept: “Boulder Dam.”

If this seems petty, it struck Harry Truman that way, too. Truman was no stranger to partisanship, but he knew that as a pre-president and a former president, Hebert Hoover was the driving force behind two great post-war American-led food drives that saved millions of Europeans from starvation. He’d done this at the behest of two Democratic presidents, Woodrow Wilson and Truman himself. And so, in 1947 Harry Truman restored Herbert Hoover’s name to the great dam that generated the power that created Las Vegas.

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics

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