Borglum, Humanities

Honoring Borglum

BorglumArt and Politics in a Different Time

You can be forgiven if you didn’t know that Idaho has a Hall of Fame. Apparently the group only gets real attention when they decide, as they did in 2007 and again last week, to honor an individual with Idaho connections who has generated controversy.

The last time the group was in the news, they had decided to induct Larry Craig into the Hall while the former senator was still daily enduring the brunt of jokes from late night comedians.

This year its Mt. Rushmore sculptor John Gutzon de la Mothe Borglum who has generated the headlines because of his 1920’s ties to the Ku Klux Klan. Borglum, born in Bear Lake County, Idaho Territory in 1867, was a man of enormous talent, even greater ambition and – I know this will be a shock – some serious shortcomings as a person.

As the superb PBS series The American Experience noted when it broadcast a piece on Mt. Rushmore some time back, “Borglum liked to tinker with his own legend, subtracting a few years from his age, changing the story of his parentage. The best archival research has revealed that he was born in 1867 to one of the wives of a Danish Mormon bigamist. When his father decided to conform to societal norms that were pressing westward with the pioneers, he abandoned Gutzon’s mother, and remained married to his first wife, her sister.”

The rest of Borglum’s life was just as confused and, frankly, in keeping with the west of mythology, just as disordered and contradictory. Why else would a elfin-size man consider it possible (not to mention desirable) to carve 60 foot high heads of American presidents on the side of a slab of granite in the Black Hills of South Dakota? Borglum also believed he had the ability and political skill to create a monument to the heros of the Confederacy at Stone Mountain, Georgia. That’s where the Idaho native met up with the Klan.

Carving portraits on the sides of mountains requires some kind of ego, not to mention showmanship, artistic and engineering skill, political connections and impossibly good public relations. Borglum had all that and then some.

I grew up in the shadow of Mt. Rushmore, a National Monument about 25 miles from Rapid City. The monument, to my eyes, is one of the most fascinating tourist sites in the United States and draws nearly 3 million visitors every year. Yet, the place is an incredible study in contradiction. At Mt. Rushmore, it requires real effort not to confront all the tension and dissention inherent in the American story.

When the project was dedicated by President Calvin Coolidge in the summer of 1927 he cast Borglum’s breathtakingly complex endeavor in patriotic, nationalistic terms.

“Its location will be significant,” Coolidge said. “Here in the heart of the continent, on the side of a mountain which probably no white man had ever beheld in the days of Washington, in territory which was acquired by the action of Jefferson, which remained an unbroken wilderness beyond the days of Lincoln, which was especially beloved by Roosevelt, the people of the future will see history and art combined to portray the spirit of patriotism.”

Silent Cal lavished praise on the “people of South Dakota” and the four American presidents who would soon take their places on the mountain. He did not deign to mention the Lakota Sioux, the original “people of South Dakota” who considered – still consider – the Black Hills theirs by right of a treaty signed with the United States government in 1868.

So, in the extreme, Borglum’s incredible artistic and engineering accomplishment is a shrine to American democracy and all the best that stands for and a mountain-sized reminder of what the “American” experience has meant for Native Americans.

Borglum story was every bit as much a contradiction as the story of his greatest accomplishment. All the news coverage of Borglum’s induction into the Idaho Hall of Fame prominently mentioned, as it should have, his involvement with the Klan while he was attempting to construct what eventually became the Stone Mountain Memorial in Georgia – a monument to Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis.

The Idaho Statesman’s Kevin Richert and the editorial page of the Idaho State Journal chided the Hall of Fame pickers for, at a minimum, a lack of due diligence in selecting Borglum for any honor.

Here’s my take. The Klan represents a ugly, ugly period in American history, but it is our history and a fair and more complete – not to mention more interesting – reading of that history requires us to struggle with context and motivation. The “perfect” vision afforded by hindsight can blind us to nuance. History, after all, is often about finding a balance; in Borglum’s case human frailty versus great accomplishment.

Borglum, a politician as much as a sculptor, surely felt he needed both the political and financial help of the Klan in Georgia in the early 1920’s if he were to succeed with his Stone Mountain tribute. The three Americans honored there, not to put too fine a point on it, had participated in an effort to violently overthrow the government of the United States. And Stone Mountain isn’t just another hunk of granite. The modern Klan was re-born in a ceremony on top of the mountain in 1915.

Borglum took on the Stone Mountain project for several reasons; for money no doubt, surely for prestige, maybe even for his art. He set out to create an heroic monument to the leaders of the War of Rebellion at the same time he was contemplating a monument to one of the presidents who put down that rebellion. In the process, in the case of Stone Mountain, he made a deal with the Klan. Today we might well say Borglum made a deal with the devil and, yes, you might get an entirely different read on these same details in part of the old Confederacy. That, too, is part of our history.

Consider one more contradiction. Borglum abandoned work on Stone Mountain in 1923 in large part because of financial disagreements with the project’s sponsors. He had also gotten enthused about the prospects of an even more grandiose art project in the Black Hills championed by a very progressive Republican United States Senator named Peter Norbeck. Norbeck, a friend and political supporter of Teddy Roosevelt and his brand of liberal GOP politics, worked – most of the time, anyway – closely with Borglum to push the Mt. Rushmore project and raise money to complete the monument. Norbeck in his politics and priorities was about as far removed from the Klan as South Dakota is from Georgia.

In 1924, to further confound the modern reader of Borglum’s life, the sculptor happily endorsed the presidential aspirations of Wisconsin Senator Robert M. La Follette who ran as a third party candidate on the Progressive ticket. Borglum cast quarter-sized bronze reliefs of the very liberal La Follette and his equally liberal running mate Sen. Burton K. Wheeler of Montana. The likenesses of the two progressives – they supported strong unions, child labor laws and a non-interventionist foreign policy – were used as campaign buttons and you can still occasionally find Borglum’s handsome work in second hand shops or on eBay.

It’s also worth noting that during that 1924 election only the Progressive Party platform condemned the Klan. The Democratic and Republican platforms were silent because, rather than condemn the white sheet crowd, the major parties actually hoped to appeal to Klan members.

As historian Stanley Coben has pointed out, in the 1920’s the Klan “enrolled more members in Connecticut than in Mississippi, more in Oregon than in Louisiana, and more in New Jersey than in Alabama.” In the 1920’s, Klan backed candidates won races for governor in Oregon, Kansas and Colorado.

Shakespeare wrote, “the evil men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones.”

Borglum, as is well document, had many flaws, including ego and self aggrandizement and he flirted, and maybe more, with the Klan. We have been recently reminded that as a young, ambitious man, the late, great Sen. Robert Byrd did much the same. Hugo Black, arguably one of the greatest Supreme Court justices in our history, and certainly one of the greatest civil libertarians to ever grace the Court, had to explain his Klan membership in 1937. He spent the rest of his days living it down.

We shouldn’t excuse such errors of judgment, youthful indiscretion or rank opportunism, but a fair reading of history – and in this case Gutzon Borglum’s accomplishments – also requires consideration of the man’s total life. If further proof of Borglum’s artistic achievement it necessary, note that he sculpted two of the 100 statues in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall. This guy, born near Paris, Idaho, had some serious talent.

Borglum and the Klan are part of our history; the good and the not so good. So too the mountain he carved on disputed ground in the Black Hills of Lakota territory featuring other worthy – and very human – white men Washington, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Thomas Jefferson. Turns out our history is just as confused and contradictory as Gutzon Borglum’s.

Basques. Books, Borglum, Bow Ties, Guest Post, Marketing, Public Relations

P.R. vs. Marketing

SydneyA Guest Blog – P.R. and Marketing

My Gallatin Public Affairs colleague Sydney Sallabanks has a guest post today. She offers thoughts on public relations and marketing – flips sides of the same coin really – and stresses that effective advocacy in a cluttered marketplace still requires the basics: clarity and honesty.


“‘Public Relations vs. Marketing’? Isn’t that a bit like ‘patriotism vs. love of country’?” questioned a friend of mine about the presentation that David Cook and I gave last week at the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce.

Yes — that’s the point that Cook, creative director of Boise agency Stoltz Marketing Group, and I hope we made to the audience of about 30 small business owners, non-profit executives and entrepreneurs assembled for the workshop, aptly titled “Public Relations vs. Marketing.”

After working on a few projects with Cook, not only did I learn that his “awkward phase” spans from 1969 to the present, I also discovered that we share similar notions of our respective fields. Public relations and marketing are flip sides of the same coin — Advocacy. When well planned and implemented, they serve to reinforce one another. With some savvy, small businesses have the power to market their goods and services, control their exposure and customize it to mirror their corporate climate.

This may be accomplished with a happy, if not blissful marriage of marketing and public relations. The point is to send the right message to the right audience using the right mode of delivery. We help our clients tell their story and start the conversation.

A principal nuance, however, is that public relations can be harder to control than marketing, “You can never guarantee full control of what is being said about you or your company with PR, unlike marketing, including paid advertising,” said Cook.

While social media is often a valuable piece of the marketing and PR mix, starting with the customer experience is critical, according to Cook. “Isn’t Facebook scheduled to replace television next week?” he joked, advising the audience against abandoning traditional marketing and PR altogether in favor of social media tactics. “These new tools are not a replacement for traditional media; they are an addition to it.” Cook advises to strike a nerve and keep the message simple to cut through the clutter, whatever the delivery.

I advise a similar practice on the PR front. There is no substitute for clear and honest communication. Our firm specializes in developing campaigns for complex issues, often involving multi-member partnerships between the public and private sectors — which means clarity and candor is key.

And like all worthwhile things in life, relationships do matter. In my experience, they are the most rewarding part of the job.

As the Public Relations Society of America notes:

Public relations is much more than endorsements and what many of the media, bloggers and the public have defined as ‘spin.’ The practice of public relations has and will always be the art and science of building relationships, connecting people and measuring how these relationships with various publics lead to long-term value for on entity or organization (whether it’s in regard to government, investor, analyst, media, community or employee relations).”

Any worthwhile relationship requires time and attention, including the working relationship between public relations professional and the media. As newsrooms continue to shrink, journalists are being pushed harder. But there are ways to make life easier on both sides: Do your homework, be accessible and respect the deadline driven nature of a reporter’s world.

Think truth and action, avoid jargon and spin. The Onion recently profiled a fictional, laid-off PR exec and quoted him: “I wasn’t fired so much as my job was one of the positions phased out through the outsourcing of certain activities and the restructured insourcing of others.”

A good rule of thumb: If your campaign or marketing initiative can’t pass a simple “straight face test,” including a basic question -“is what I’m doing serving a broad public interest?” – then you might consider going back to the drawing board, or risk getting ink in The Onion.