It isn’t a wall. It’s a great, big boondoggle

Question: When is a wall not a wall?

Answer:  When it’s a boondoggle.

And what, exactly, is a boondoggle?  My dictionary defines a boondoggle as “a work or activity that is wasteful or pointless but gives the appearance of having value.”

Then, there’s this definition, even more applicable to the boondoggle at hand:

“A project considered a waste of both time and money, yet is often continued due to extraneous policy or political motivations.”

Both definitions are somewhat unfair to the original boondoggles. In the 1920s and early ‘30s, Boy Scouts in summer camp were taught to braid and knot colorful strips of leather and plastic into belts, neckerchief holders and bracelets. A Scoutmaster coined the word boondoggle to describe the process around 1925.

But the harmless boondoggle became something sinister in April of 1935 when The New York Times reported city aldermen complaining that the Roosevelt administration’s Depression-era Works Progress Administration (WPA) had wasted $3 million training unemployed white-collar workers in the arts of ballet dancing, shadow puppetry and boondoggling.

“Presently,” wrote historian William Manchester in “The Glory and the Dream,” his history of America from 1932 to 1972, “editorials in newspapers all over the country were ridiculing ‘boondoggling.’”

The boondoggle — in its political context — survived the Great Depression, wars and prosperity, often in the form of earmarks passed by Congress to please an individual lawmaker’s constituency with funding from the rest of us.  

One of recent vintage is the fabled bridge to nowhere in Alaska, proposed to serve a village of 50 and  the grandly named Ketchikan International Airport. A ferry running every 15 minutes from the mainland adequately served the residents and the 350 customers who used the airport every day, but Alaska’s congressmen and Gov. Sarah Palin came close to getting $398 million for the boondoggle.

Which brings us to the Great Wall of Donald Trump, also known as boondoggling for the 21st century. Unlike the bridge to nowhere, there is a clear need for security of various kinds across the 2,000-mile southern U.S. border, especially when so many impoverished residents of Mexico and Central America are seeking better lives to the north.

Seeing the perfect campaign issue for a base composed of so many resentful white men looking to blame someone for their plight, Trump focused on the real problem of illegal immigration but offered the perfect, simple solution — “a great, great wall,” constructed of “hardened concrete, no windows, no nothing, precast concrete going very high” that “would go up like magic” and be paid for by those despised Mexicans.

Of course, the Mexican money never materialized and the wall has become for Trump a nagging symbol of his failure to keep his biggest promise, if you don’t count cleaning the swamp.  His warnings about the great need to protect Americans from those hordes of murderers, rapists, gang members and terrorists haven’t impressed many beyond the true believers in the base.  (The terrorist part has especially fallen flat since terrorists tend to be homegrown young men corrupted by the internet or foreigners arriving by air.)

The ability of a great, great wall to stop drug smugglers is also questionable, as they usually travel through legal borders or use tunnels impervious to barriers of any kind.  But by stressing this limited drug threat, the president needn’t deal with the unpleasant fact that prescription drug abuse kills twice as many as all the heroin and cocaine overdoses combined.

And the composition of the wall itself isn’t what it used to be. In his exit interview with the Los Angeles Times, former Chief of Staff John Kelly said, “To be honest, it’s not a wall. We left a solid concrete wall early on in the administration when we asked people what they needed and where they needed it.”

Among the people asked was Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan, who said in late December that, “What we’re talking about is not just a dumb barrier. We’re talking about sensors, cameras, lighting, access roads for our agents” and, more agents.  

That’s reasonable to most people, including members of both parties in Congress, but it may not be acceptable to the president’s principal advisors on border security, Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh. Boondoggles sometimes die hard.


Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at rahles1@outlook.com.