L.A. Times columnist Michael Hiltzik

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Pulitzer Prize-winning L.A. Times columnist and author of Colossus discusses why people should care about the Hoover Dam.


Tavis: Michael Hiltzik is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and columnist who has been covering business and technology for the “L.A. Times” for more than 20 years now. His acclaimed new book is called “Colossus: Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century.” Michael, good to have you back on the program.
Michael Hiltzik: Nice to be back.
Tavis: I think it’s fascinating, which is why I have you on the program. Before somebody changes the channel, right quick, because they’re trying to figure out why do I care about the Hoover Dam, start selling.
Hiltzik: Well, that’s a very good question. (Laughter) Tavis, Hoover Dam has a lot to tell us about the world today. The country that we live in, especially the West that we live in, was created by Hoover Dam. But beyond that, this was a project that put people to work at a time when unemployment was unbelievably high. It put people to work doing something that their communities needed.
They needed flood control, they needed irrigation, they needed water and power, and at the time that they needed all that here was a project that not only provided them with that but also provided them with employment.
Tavis: Are there parallels between then now?
Hiltzik: I think there are a lot of parallels. This sort of project is essential in today’s world, and in fact the stimulus program that we have today in many ways is based on the model of Hoover Dam, of providing things that communities need, things that communities haven’t been getting for years and years because we haven’t spent the money on it. Providing it and also putting people to work at the same time.
Tavis: Tell me more. Reset the stage, if you will, for me of what was happening during this time when the Hoover Dam project came to fruition. Give me a sense of the economy, the country at that time.
Hiltzik: Well, this was at the very beginning of the Depression. In 1930, when the first earth was turned for Hoover Dam, we were in a depression but it was still seen as a depression with a small D. We were about a year, a year and a half before really beginning to think of it as a Great Depression with a capital D.
Now, Herbert Hoover was president, and although Hoover is widely cursed for not really doing enough to address the Depression, one of the things that he did do was understand that if you were going to put people to work, put people to work, you need to do it through public works, through government construction.
So I think he does deserve credit for seeing that and he started major change in the way we financed and undertook big government programs.
Tavis: Yet one of the more fascinating parts of the book is how at a certain point he kind of fought against this project and winds up with his name on it anyway.
Hiltzik: Well, that’s one of the ironies of the story. This is not a dam that Herbert Hoover actually wanted built. The problem with it from his standpoint was that it was going to be generating millions of horsepower of electricity by the taxpayers.
One of the things that Hoover was against, one of his philosophies was that government should not do something that private enterprise could do. Now, Hoover was very closely tied in with the private utility industry and the utility industry thought that this dam, once it was built, would be generating so much public power that it would be an important competitor to them.
So Hoover himself wanted to build a much shorter dam, move it much further downstream from where this dam is, so he was not in favor of this though he was in favor of building something for flood control.
Tavis: Tell me more about the actual process of building it, what it took to get this thing – we all, of course, know it these days and rely on it, have for years, but tell me about the process of getting this thing built.
Hiltzik: Sure. This was a great triumph of civil engineering. It remains to this day one of the great triumphs of American civil engineering.
Tavis: Unlike New Orleans and the –
Hiltzik: Well, sometimes conditions can overmatch even clever technologists. But the point is that this was such a big dam, it was more than twice the size of any dam that had ever been built. It had to be invented as it went up. Construction techniques had to be invented, methods of pouring concrete had to be invented.
They had to develop new formulas for concrete because no concrete ever poured in a mass this size was ever subjected to the stresses and strains that this dam was going to undergo. So they had to invent it as it went on, there were techniques, equipment, methods that were developed that are still used today and that have been built on today from what was done in 1930.
Tavis: That sounds to me like a wildly over budget project, if you’re building as you go, if you’re learning as you go, trying as you go, inventing as you go. It had to be wildly over budget.
Hiltzik: No, in fact it came in right at budget (laughter), and not only that it came in two years ahead of schedule, and that’s a testament to the skill of the builders, especially the superintendent, who was a man named Frank Crowe, who was the greatest dam builder of his age – maybe of any age.
Tavis: How technologically ahead of their time were they when they were constructing this?
Hiltzik: Well, they were very far ahead. When the dam was first being designed they weren’t quite sure how to build it. So they had to really develop these things on the ground, in the gorge. They looked at the challenge before them and they thought about what do we need to do, how do we need to do this, and then they went and did it.
They commanded all sorts of technology, they commanded the resources of the American people, scientists, engineers, and they got it done. That’s a lesson also to us today that you can do it if you apply the resources and the skills and the intelligence that we have in this country.
Tavis: That begs the obvious question, for me at least, though, which is, Michael, whether or not Hoover Dam had to be built at that time, and if it had to be built, why did we have to build Hoover Dam?
Hiltzik: Well, there were a lot of demands for a large dam on the Colorado at the time. We had the Imperial Valley, which is the breadbasket of Southern California, had been inundated by flood after flood by the Colorado.
The Colorado was a very untamed river; it was a dangerous river, yet it was important in terms of providing water for the growers in the valley. So we needed the dam for flood control, we needed it for irrigation.
Los Angeles was growing very quickly and it had a great demand for electricity and for water for growth. So you have to think that the politics of the era really mandated a dam of this size. Once you get to that point you realize that the world we live in today is a world that’s been created by Hoover Dam.
So it’s very hard to look back and say, “Maybe we shouldn’t have built it,” or “Did we have to build it?” We built it, and it created our world.
Tavis: I know what you meant by that, but let me ask you to unpack it a bit more. When you say the world we live in today has been created because of or by Hoover Dam – in fact, the subtitle of the book is “Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century,” what do we owe now to the creation of the Hoover Dam?
Hiltzik: Well, certainly the size and the strength of the western states of the United States. Forty-five million people moved into the seven states of the Colorado basin, including California, Nevada and Arizona, between 1930 and today. That’s 45 million people, many of them drawn by the promise of growth that was created by Hoover Dam.
Now at the same time, so many people here were dependent on these resources that we’ve now gotten to the point of limits. That’s the other lesson of Hoover Dam, I think, for today, which is that the promise of great technology can never really be fully fulfilled, because we do tend to over-promise.
We brought all those people here, we grew this region so that it’s the most politically powerful region in the country, and yet we now have so many people that there are more people than there is water to serve them, and that’s something that we have to live with, and that’s an irony that we have to deal with today and that we’ll be dealing with for decades.
Tavis: What do we do about that particular problem – I’m glad you raised it?
Hiltzik: Well, we have to live with it. There’s not going to be a soft landing, but this region has been better than many other regions at doing things like conserving water, recycling water.
We’ve learned a lot. Our farmers are learning to do more with less, they’re learning to plant different crops that don’t need as much water. They’re learning to irrigate in new ways because they’re using technology but they’re doing it because they have to, and that’s something that we’re learning to do and that we’re going to have to continue to learn to do.
Tavis: Hoover, as a president, not one of the most widely regarded occupants of the Oval Office. So when you talk about President Obama, there are always comparisons made to FDR, comparisons made to Abraham Lincoln.
Are there, having said all that, lessons that Obama can or should learn about these kinds of projects from Hoover, in fact?
Hiltzik: Well, I think he has learned the lesson, and we see that lesson in the stimulus program. We see the lesson that you can put people to work with major projects, and the right way to do it is to put people to work on projects that serve their communities and that are needed, that do things that haven’t been done in years because we haven’t wanted to spend the money.
This is a great opportunity. Hoover took the opportunity, Roosevelt built on that opportunity, and I think Obama has looked and taken both of them as a model for his own projects.
Tavis: It’s probably a horrible parallel and I shouldn’t even say this, but I’m going to say it anyway. I don’t know why I just thought about Hoover and this comparison to Bugsy Siegel. Bugsy comes up with this idea for Las Vegas, he doesn’t get any credit for it in his lifetime, and now we know Vegas is a billion-dollar industry.
Hoover gets no credit in his lifetime, he still gets denigrated to this day as a horrible president, and yet look what came out of it – this Hoover Dam.
Hiltzik: That’s right, that’s right. They’re ironies in history, and that’s what makes the story so fascinating.
Tavis: Yeah. Not as sexy as Bugsy Siegel, but (laughs) a great conversation.
Hiltzik: Well, of course, Las Vegas really is a product of Hoover Dam. It brought people there; it provided the water and the electricity for all that neon. (Laughter) It really is the result of this dam.
Tavis: So we have Hoover Dam to thank for all the neon, next time you land at night in Las Vegas and see all that neon. The book is called “Colossus: Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century,” written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer of the “L.A. Times,” Michael Hiltzik. Michael, good to have you on the program, and thanks for the text.
Hiltzik: Thanks for having me.
Tavis: My pleasure.

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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm