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I took a tour of the Crown Hill Cemetery.
It is the third largest cemetery in the United States. A president, Benjamin Harrison, and three vice presidents were laid to rest there, as well as many veterans of wars dating to the Revolution.
But the grave of a Depression-era icon, John Dillinger, is the most instructive.
The official brochure lists him only as a bank robber, which is accurate as far as it goes. “Killer” could have been added. The families of certain law officers might appreciate that.
His resting place is easily one of the most visited spots in the place. Benjamin Harrison may have won the Electoral College in 1888, but Dillinger keeps riding a popularity contest of a different sort.
His site is adorned with vivid artificial flowers, planted in the ground by the headstone, and the stone itself is covered with small coins, pennies mostly, left continually by his fans.
Some Internet sources say this is an old custom associated with letting God know the deceased was a charitable person. Others point to superstitions about money bringing blessings from the departed.
Either one seems right for the way some feel about Dillinger, who caught the public’s imagination at a time when many people hated banks for failing them and the rich for ignoring them.
One popular story has Dillinger returning the money his men had taken from a farmer who was in a bank at the time of a robbery. He reportedly said something to the effect of, “We don’t want your money, only the bank’s.”
Of course, the man wouldn’t have been in the bank if he hadn’t intended to either deposit or withdraw his money. Nearly every dime Dillinger stole, especially from small-town banks, belonged to some hard-working soul who needed it.
But such was the strained logic of the time, which has echoes in the chants of the Occupy movement and the tea party today.
Now the Occupiers and tea partiers seem to have faded back into the wallpaper of our era. The former never did resonate much beyond a fringe statist residue, and the latter appealed a bit more broadly, but not enough to unseat a president with no platform for austerity.
The signs panhandlers hold can speak volumes about the times. Eighty years ago the pitch was for apples at 5 cents. In contrast, a man on Salt Lake City’s Main Street last week held one that said, “For every dollar, a Justin Beiber fan dies.” My guess is he ate well that night.
We are, above all, a nation undeterred in our worship of celebrity and our love of irony.
And we are undeterred in our dislike of Congress and Washington in general. Realclearpolitics.com reported last week that a scant 13.5 percent of Americans approve of Congress, with 80.3 percent disapproving. It wasn’t hard to guess who all those people stuck in airports were blaming.
Washington, meanwhile, staged a verbal Roller Derby. The president’s spokesman said Republicans had put airports in this fix. Republicans countered that the administration was tailoring the cuts to deliberately rile the public.
Neither side seemed the least interested in finding a real compromise solution.
No, this is not the second Great Depression. The comparison can be an insult to the widespread poverty of that era.
A modern Dillinger might be frustrated trying to gain a PR advantage by targeting banks in the era of terrorism. He had little trouble channeling a nation’s anger to his advantage back in the day.
But when democracy produces fiscal lunacy and political obstinacy, even in the face of long-term financial disaster, it’s much easier to throw coins on a grave and wish for simpler times.
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Jay Evensen is the Senior Editorial Columnist of the Deseret News. He has 32 years experience as a reporter, editor and editorial writer in Oklahoma, New York City, Las Vegas and Salt Lake City. He also has been an adjunct journalism professor at Brigham Young and Weber State universities.