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Las Vegan Sally Denton digs into Bechtel’s shadowy past in ‘The Profiteers’

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Chuck Twardy

Four stars

The Profiteers: Bechtel and the Men Who Built the World By Sally Denton, $30.

In The Profiteers, Sally Denton reminds readers that Hoover Dam was not, as many believe, a New Deal project. Its namesake and a Republican Congress approved it at the behest of well-heeled Westerners to secure water, power and the future from the Colorado River. The dam also enriched its lead contractor, the W.A. Bechtel Co., whose descendent entities have mastered the art of the massive government contract, from the American West to the Mideast, from Los Alamos to Libya, from Boston to the Balkans and beyond.

Denton, Director of Literary Nonfiction at UNLV’s Black Mountain Institute, wrote The Profiteers with the support of a Kluge/Black Mountain Institute fellowship. She has long documented the shadowy relations of wealth and politics, notably in The Money and the Power, the Las Vegas history written with husband Roger Morris. In The Profiteers, she tells the story of the family-owned and publicity-averse Bechtel, from the early projects of Warren “Dad” Bechtel to the huge solar complex that opened in 2014 in the Ivanpah Valley.

Generations of Bechtel sons and associates managed to position the corporation on the edge of what the world needed in transportation and energy. Along the way it conveniently shuttled executives in and out of the federal government and its security organs. George Shultz and Caspar Weinberger cooled their heels in Bechtel’s San Francisco office between the Nixon and Reagan Administrations. One of the book’s most troubling conclusions is that Weinberger got a federal judge to life-sentence Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, because Pollard uncovered Bechtel’s involvement in a chemical complex to be built in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

Starting with its early partnership with John Alex McCone, who would become CIA director, Bechtel pioneered the “cost-plus” contract, which guarantees a profit. But while relying almost entirely on government contracts, Bechtel executives have consistently championed conservative, laissez-faire politics. As Denton observes in the preface, “The company tenet of free enterprise obfuscates the fact of its dependence on government.” That the West’s spirit of individualism and innovation set the tone for American successes at home and abroad appears to underpin the Bechtel story. In fact, its philosophy is not “get government off our backs” but “just give us all the money and don’t ask questions.”

It turns out that the libertarian ideal the West supposedly gave the nation is really the world’s oldest fact: The rich make the rules and the rest of us pay.

Find more by Chuck Twardy at chucktwardy.com.

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