In five years, we built the Hoover Dam. From 1931 to 1936, the Colorado River was diverted with tunnels blasted into the Black Canyon walls, a town was built to house a small army of workers laboring in the desert, and 3 1/4 million cubic yards of concrete were poured into a dam reaching 726 1/2 feet high -- two years ahead of schedule.
It's hard to look back at this monumental effort without a feeling of envy. The dam was completed on the backs of desperate men during the Great Depression, but from this remove, it looks like an apotheosis of the can-do spirit. Who believes we could do something similar today, that political bickering, governmental bungling, Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations, lawsuits and environmental objections wouldn't make such a project all but impossible?
In the 1930s, the Empire State Building was built in 410 days; more than five years after 9/11, the World Trade Center site still features a gaping hole. It might be the fate of President Bush to be remembered as the emblem of an Age of Cynicism, when -- despite many encouraging economic and social indicators -- we experienced a deep public funk, driven by the feeling that government couldn't be trusted to do anything, at least not well.
This is the spirit that more than anything else brought down (for now) the Senate's Grand Compromise on immigration. It wasn't Bush's declining clout or raging xenophobia so much as the collective grass-roots reply to the White House's detailed explications of the enforcement provisions in the bill: "We simply don't believe you."
His administration had made no appreciable attempt to enforce immigration laws until recently. A government can't ignore its own laws without creating deep suspicions about its motives. Then, there was the question of capability. At the same time the administration was maintaining it could process at least 12 million illegal immigrants into a complex path to citizenship, it couldn't even manage to issue passports in a timely manner when new regulations passed in 2004 came into effect.
The administration is paying a price for its serial abuse of the word "must." Bush often has said that a given country "must" relinquish its nuclear program or free a dissident or forswear test-firing a missile, with little in the way of consequence when his demand is ignored. So when his administration says, under the immigration deal, an immigrant or an employer "must" do something, no one believes that verb represents anything more than wishfulness.
The backdrop to all this, of course, is the Iraq War. The government of the United States presented to the world intelligence that turned out to be wrong; insisted we were making steady progress in the guerrilla war when, by the end of 2006, we were facing catastrophe; and has still managed only fitful progress against an enemy whose main weapon is home-made bombs. This casts a pall over our public life, augmented by Hurricane Katrina's devastation, corruption in Congress, paranoiac ranting on the left and incompetence in high places (see Attorney General Alberto Gonzales).
In these conditions, it's a political boon to have a distance from government. The best thing that might have happened to Republicans lately is their loss of Congress, which means that Democrats have gone from attacking a spectacularly unpopular Congress to running a spectacularly unpopular Congress. Congratulations!
The low regard for the federal government is fueling the candidacy of outsider Rudy Giuliani. It replicates the circumstances of his first election as New York City mayor, when he took over a supposedly ungovernable city. Now, the ungovernable city is 200 miles south, in Washington, D.C. Although she lacks Giuliani's executive experience, Sen. Hillary Clinton similarly benefits from her self-described "responsibility gene" and from seeming the most competent of the Democratic candidates.
Whoever is elected in 2008 won't build a majestic dam, but will have to work to dispel the Age of Cynicism.