It's too bad that Dick Cheney didn't stick around longer in Rock Springs back when he was growing up in the deep West. He worked in the Wyoming city decades ago, in the early 1960s, after he flunked out of Yale. For Cheney, it was a bottom-of-the-heap job, stringing electrical lines as a "groundman."
It was also the scene of one of the
future vice president's youthful indiscretions: his second
drunken-driving bust. In the summer of 1963 - coincidentally the
year I graduated from Rock Springs High - a couple of Rock Springs'
finest pulled him over and he ended up paying a $100 fine. Cheney
said those driving-while-intoxicated offenses were hard experiences
that helped change his direction in life.
he'd hung around the city a few more years, he might have learned
another and perhaps more significant lesson, one applicable to
where things - partially under Cheney's direction - seem to be
headed in Iraq. Not long after Cheney headed out of Rock Springs
and on to a more productive life, things changed dramatically here.
The gritty Wyoming high-desert city was
blindsided when a couple of electric-company heavyweights decided -
with virtually no public involvement, save for a few clued-in
locals figuring to cash in - to build a billion-dollar behemoth, a
2,000-megawatt, coal-fired power plant. That's a plant big enough
to produce enough electricity for some 1.6 million people.
At the same time, the 1970s Mideast oil embargo
touched off a drilling frenzy nearby, followed by Fortune
500-companies arriving to exploit the area's huge sodium carbonate
deposits. Literally thousands of people poured in, overwhelming the
The result was predictable: chaos,
crime, a shattered community and calls to "do something."
Sociologists, ministers and crime-fighters alike jumped on the
bandwagon, scared and shaken by Rock Springs' stark fast-growth
Well, it was too late for Rock
Springs, the politicians said, but they agreed that in the future,
the public would need to know all about big decisions before they
got made. Thus was born the Wyoming Industrial Siting Act, a
pioneering law based on the National Environmental Policy Act.
It embodied a seemingly simple concept: Any
incoming company planning a mega-project had to tell folks up-front
what to expect, along with the potential positives, the downsides
and the alternatives to such a project.
human pain of Rock Springs turned out to be a valuable lesson for
other Western cities. Rock Springs was forever branded as the
quintessential boomtown, where social ills developed and festered.
It took a long time to clean up the mess. The city's landscape,
with its deteriorating trailer-court leftovers, and its psyche
still bear the scars.
Fast-forward to the
present, where we hear much talk about Iraq but see little
documentation about what's going to happen once we begin the
planned "action" against Saddam Hussein. Evil gets a lot of
attention. So does the "need" to "do something about terrorists."
But at what cost?
Have you seen any "impact
statements," environmental or otherwise, assessing potential or
likely military casualties? How many Iraqis might die? Have we
gotten a clear picture of what will happen after the dust settles
in Baghdad? Has the Bush-Cheney administration provided enough
information so that people in a democracy can make a good decision?
It's too bad Dick Cheney didn't stick around
Rock Springs a little longer so he could experience for himself
what can happen when you act first and ask the tough questions
later. It was in the summer of 1978, when Cheney was on the
campaign trail making his first run for Congress, that Rock Springs
hired a police chief to clean up the town. One night, that chief
fired a single bullet into the head of his undercover drug
"Self-defense," the chief explained;
the detective was about to draw on him. So he shot first. And how
did he know the man was planning to shoot? "I could see it in his
eyes," the chief testified.
Well, that certainly
took care of the problem, or at least, the problem as it was
outlined by the police chief: Get him before he gets you. That also
seems to be the way the Washington war party, including Vice
President Cheney, looks at Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
Before our bombs start dropping, I hope our vice
president thinks about Rock Springs and the lessons some of us have
had to learn there, because it's all too easy to act fast, but it's
harder than hell to put all the pieces back together again, once
you've made your move.