“Plug the Damn Hole!”

Once again, an episode from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged leaps to life from behind closed doors in Washington, D.C. According to a recent report from The Washington Post, President Obama is angry about the British Petroleum oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico:

Since the oil rig exploded, the White House has tried to project a posture that is unflappable and in command.

 But to those tasked with keeping the president apprised of the disaster, Obama’s clenched jaw is becoming an increasingly familiar sight. During one of those sessions in the Oval Office the first week after the spill, a president who rarely vents his frustration cut his aides short, according to one who was there.

“Plug the damn hole,” Obama told them.

That’s the politician’s answer to every intractable problem: give orders, issue threats, and wait for obedience. But the creative human mind cannot take orders like that. Notice I didn’t say, “refuses to take orders.” I said, “cannot take orders.”

By that I mean, the task of plugging a leak 5,000 feet below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico is an engineering feat. BP’s acknowledged role in causing the leak does not alter the fact that careful study, creative thought, and the exacting deployment of technical and mechanical skills over long distances are all necessary in order to fix the leak. No amount of jaw clenching or bug-eyed threats from politicians can bring the solution one inch closer to reality. The human mind does not operate by force from outside. If engineering achievements could be conjured up by barking orders, the Soviet Union would be a thriving nation overflowing with engineering marvels, instead of a dead husk.

Obama’s petulant outburst brings to mind a scene from Atlas Shrugged featuring Kip Chalmers, a politician who is traveling by train from Washington, D.C., to California, where he’s running for office. When the train’s diesel engine is destroyed by accidentally running over a split rail, Chalmers issues furious demands, expecting they will result in instant technical solutions:

“God damn these railroad people!” said Kip Chalmers. “They’re doing it on purpose. They want to ruin my campaign. I can’t miss that rally! For Christ’s sake, Lester, do something!”

“I’ve tried,” said Lester Tuck. At the train’s last stop, he had tried, by long-distance telephone, to find air transportation to complete their journey; but there were no commercial flights scheduled for the next two days.

“If they don’t get me there on time, I’ll have their scalps and their railroad! Can’t we tell that damn conductor to hurry?”

“You’ve told him three times.”

“I’ll get him fired. He’s given me nothing but a lot of alibis about all their messy technical troubles. I expect transportation, not alibis.”

To find out how Chalmers’ threats finally got that train moving, and what catastrophic results followed, you will have to read the novel. When you do, you’ll have a better appreciation for what politicians and engineers are capable of.

[Update: Thanks to James Taranto for linking here. Best of the Web readers, welcome!]