s
s
Sections
Sections
Search
Subscribe

GOLIS: A bridge built by optimism


SAN FRANCISCO

With people from all over the world, we walked across the Golden Gate Bridge last week. It was a spectacular afternoon, one of those days that remind us few places can match the beauty of San Francisco or the majesty of what may be the world's most recognized landmark.

We've driven across the Golden Gate countless times, but when the bridge and the city beyond come into view, it's always as if we're seeing them for the first time. Sunshine, drifting fog, or both, the scene is always magical and often different.

People come from everywhere to see this view, and here it is in our backyard.

What historian Kevin Starr calls "America's greatest bridge" marks its 75th anniversary on May 27. The celebration will be a time for Santa Rosans to recall one of their own. In the campaign to build the Golden Gate Bridge, no one played a bigger role than banker Frank P. Doyle.

Some people argue that the bridge couldn't be built today. In the maelstrom of bureaucracy, regulation and anti-tax dogma, they say, there is no room for big ideas.

But it wasn't easy then. Pessimists could have identified a host of reasons not to try. Raising the money required taxpayers in six counties to underwrite the debt. The ferry companies and the environmentalists of that time wanted the Gate to remain as it was. Confronted by wind, fog, rain and tides, and laboring hundreds of feet above the bay, the work of building the bridge was difficult and dangerous. Eleven workers were killed during the years the bridge was under construction, 10 in a single accident.

But the bridge was built, and Sonoma and Marin counties were transformed.

If such an ambitious project was proposed today, many would say we can't afford to take a risk right now. There's a recession going on.

But the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge — started in 1933, finished in 1937 — coincided with the most difficult economic times in the history of this country.

What was different then? Doyle and his friends were optimists. They believed that better days would follow.

When was the last time the word optimism was used in describing today's political culture?

In so many ways, our politics have become divisive, small-minded and selfish. Some of our most influential interest groups — insert your own favorites here — are afflicted with a reflexive and indiscriminate pessimism. They begin every day by imagining what can go wrong.

You can hear them now, citing chapter and verse about what went wrong in the past. Haven't you heard about the Titanic? This is their favorite safe harbor. Because people make mistakes, it would be wrong to trust them to pursue anything new and untried.

But then there is the Golden Gate Bridge. Or space exploration. Or Medicare. Or the polio vaccine. Or flying machines. In the history of humankind, most great achievements began with the courage to take a risk to challenge the unknown — all the time believing that good outcomes would follow.

President John F. Kennedy said, "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because the challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone and one which we intend to win."

When was the last time a politician challenged us to do something that was difficult because it would prove our mettle? We are the country with a government that declared war and cut taxes at the same time and didn't see a problem.

Talk of optimism doesn't impress legions of pessimists eager to conflate optimism and naivet? or powerful political interests happy to advance their interests by disparaging others.

Of course Franklin D. Roosevelt was an optimist, and he did OK. Americans overcame the Great Depression, fought a war against fascism and built a bridge in San Francisco because they were persuaded that happy days would soon be here. California's prosperity after World War II was powered by this same simple belief.

For all its recent difficulties, this state remains one of the most prosperous places on earth. We don't lack for money or intellect. What we have lost is the capacity to trust in one another and to believe in a better future.

Unfortunately, this simple idea doesn't fit the narrative preferred by political insiders — Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives. They would rather tell us what is wrong with the world than explain how we can, together, make it better.

Optimism doesn't require us to suspend good judgment. It does oblige us to believe that we can improve the human condition if we try.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.