I’ve been making the Provo-to-Salt Lake drive a lot lately, for rehearsals and performances. It used to be that there was really only one way to make that trip; via I-15. Poor city planning, in my opinion, to put a big old mountain between the two largest cities in the state! But with Frontrunner, we now have a reasonable alternative to the I-15 commute; we can take the train, which I do, quite a bit, and which I very much enjoy. Still, I’ve been doing the drive three or four times a week, and I’ve just about got the billboards memorized. This last weekend, though, as I was driving, something struck me: on that forty-five minute drive, there are three places where you can see the face of Abraham Lincoln. And as I thought about it, the three I-15 faces of our 16th (and greatest) President, it seemed that they say something about America, or American culture, or maybe just about Utah.
Moving from north to south, the first Lincoln face is the first of a series of billboards advertising Ken Garff Motors; a bunch of auto dealerships. The caption is ‘other car dealers would fire him.’ Because Lincoln was too honest, presumably. The series of Garff billboards feature clever-ish messages on similar themes; that the sales staff at Ken Garff dealerships will really listen to your needs and concerns, that they are scrupulously honest with you, and that the same cannot be said of Garff’s competitors. ‘We listen, we’re honest, they’re not.’ One billboard just features a big pair of ears, with the Ken Garff logo. Another shows a Ken Garff ancestor, with unnaturally large ears. Good listeners; right? Another suggests, with brackets, the words ‘Truthful’ and ‘Full of it,’ with captions saying that ‘we’ are ‘Truthful,’ and ‘they’ are ‘Full of it.’ Plus, of course, Lincoln, who Ken Garff would hire, and his competition would not.
As it happens, I was in the market for a car a couple of months ago, and shopped at a Garff dealership. I didn’t find the Garff salesperson particularly attentive to my needs. Quite the contrary; I told him from the outset that I wanted a used car, within a certain price range and with certain features, and was shown several new cars, more expensive than I could afford and without the features I needed. I don’t really question the dude’s honesty; it seemed that they had a special sale on for new cars, and he was determined to sell me one. He did not succeed; I bought a car from one of Garff’s dishonest/unwilling-to-listen competitors. A used car, within my price range, with the features I wanted.
This whole billboard campaign plays on two myths, neither of them particularly true. One is that car salesmen are uniformly dishonest. That may have been true once (‘this car was owned by a little old lady who only drove it to church on Sunday!’) but nowadays, with Carfax and other research tools easily available on the internet, there’s just too much information available to consumers. A car is a major purchase, and there’s no excuse for people to come to the auto-shopping experience in ignorance. When I asked if I could see the Carfax report on the vehicle I ended up buying, the salesperson immediately printed it off and handed it to me. Why wouldn’t he?
The salesperson I bought my car from was not very experienced, and frankly, not very good at his job. While test driving, for example, instead of focusing entirely on selling me the car, he spent some time griping about how he was going to miss lunch, and could we hurry things along, so he could get a sandwich. I didn’t much like the guy, to be honest. What he had going for him was a car I really liked, and could afford. But I didn’t think he was, you know, a crook. I just don’t think salespeople can get away with that much anymore.
The other myth is that Abe Lincoln was scrupulously honest; that he was some paragon of integrity. The ‘Honest Abe’ meme was a campaign slogan; it was political marketing. It was no more true than the Garff billboards are true. Abe Lincoln was a very good President, in part because he was a crafty politician. Before becoming President, he was a very effective lawyer, and his most lucrative clients were railroads. He was, in short, a successful corporate attorney. But watch the movie Lincoln, with Daniel Day-Lewis playing old Abe. You’ll see a politician perfectly capable of wheeling and dealing and arm-twisting and conniving, and selling the public on half-truths. That’s why he was effective; he was good at all that grubby politicking. I rather suspect that if Ken Garff were lucky enough to hire Abe Lincoln in sales, he’d be very good at the job, but not, one suspects, due to his scrupulous integrity. He was a master politician and salesman–he got things done.
The second Lincoln face on I-15 is on another billboard; one urging people to read, and perhaps even memorize, the Gettysburg Address. This is part of an effort spear-headed by documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and others; here’s their website. As part of that effort, BYU did a big thing at halftime at a recent basketball game; a group of school children recited the Gettysburg, led by a biker, Stan Ellsworth, who has a show on BYUTV, American Ride. I love Ellsworth; a raspy looking dude in full biker regalia, but with a heart of gold and a patriot’s soul.
And I love me some Gettysburg Address. It’s the second greatest speech in American history, the first greatest being Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. It’s a profound statement of the greatest ideals of American democracy. But let’s face it; it’s also an act of salesmanship. It declares that the Civil War is a test of the proposition that a nation, dedicated to equality, can survive. But that’s not now the South saw it. Lincoln, in arguing for the sacrifices made by all the soldiers who died on that battlefield, consecrated it to democracy. But wasn’t the Civil War about the failure of democracy? Did Lee’s soldiers, the brave and foolhardy men who marched straight uphill into gunfire on Pickett’s charge, really think of themselves as fighting for a new birth of freedom? Or weren’t they actually in a sense fighting for an institution that denied freedom? Lincoln’s words are inspiring, because they’re aspirational–he’s defining the struggle as nobly as he could, to, eventually, bring a warring nation together.
The third Lincoln face, again heading south on I-15, is on a mini Mount Rushmore in an amusement park in Lehi, Utah, part of the Seven Peaks Fun Center. The Mount Rushmore seems to be part of a roller coaster–they call it the ‘Rush Coaster’, get it? Here’s their website.
They apparently also have a miniature golf course, where you putt amidst replicas of the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, plus also, of course, Mt. Rushmore. And there’s other stuff too: laser tag, bumper boats, a pirate ship.
It’s probably a lot of fun. If we had small children, we’d probably take them there. From the freeway, the place looks kind of tacky, to be honest, but that doesn’t mean a good time can’t be had. It all seems to me a bit more reminiscent of Jefferson (‘pursuit of happiness’) than Lincoln (‘last full measure of devotion’), but who knows, maybe you get a little patriotic buzz while shooting someone at laser tag.
The problem is, Mount Rushmore kind of creeps me out. I know, it’s a popular place, three million visitors a year (and in South Dakota!), it’s a patriotic tribute to four great Presidents. Still, there’s something about the history of the place that’s more about ‘manifest destiny’ than ‘four awesome politicians.’ Check out the wikipedia entry.
Mount Rushmore was always intended as a tourist attraction, and the original notion was that it would feature the likenesses of famous Americans, like Red Cloud and Buffalo Bill. Multi-cultural, sort of. But Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor, wanted to do Presidents instead, and got Congress to fund it. Borglum was a Danish-American-Mormon polygamist kid from Idaho. As an artist, he liked heroic themes, and he liked big. He did a six ton head of Lincoln. He was commissioned by the Ku Klux Klan to carve Confederate Generals onto Stone Mountain, in Georgia. He joined the Klan, but left (both the Klan and the project), over disputes over artistic issues, and (shocker), over money.
Mount Rushmore was a sacred mountain for the Lakota, who called it Six Grandfathers. It was part of a spiritual journey taken by Lakota chief Black Elk. It’s probably still owned by the Lakota. But it got renamed after a lawyer named Rushmore, and, working under the incontestable legal theory that our army has more guns than you do, was ‘given’ to Borglum to carve Presidents into. And Borglum was a nativist; a fan of manifest destiny. He wanted there to be a museum with a glass floor, with images of native American leaders (Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Black Elk), under glass, so that whenever people visited the park, they’d literally walk on the faces of Indian leaders.
If you go to Mount Rushmore, and ask the Forest Service rangers about Borglum, and his wackier notions, they’ll tell you all about it; they’re all amateur historians and not big fans of the guy. And the exhibits there nowadays pay respect to native cultures. On their website, teachers can get lesson plans about geology and ecology and,yes, obviously, American history. The place has a less-creepy vibe than the ‘let’s celebrate American expansionism’ ideology that Borglum intended to advance. But that vibe is still there.
And the addition, in Lehi, of a roller coaster and bumper boats, seems sort of quintessentially American; the commodification of icons, the transformation of ideals into the tackiest sort of entertainment. And good for us. Jefferson nailed us; we’re about pursuing happiness, wherever we can find it. In the cars we purchase, the speeches we memorize, and the roller coasters we ride. All available off I-15.