"In the Treasury we do not speak of tons of silver. Our unit is the troy ounce."
That was the response from some bureaucrat when Leslie Groves, the man who oversaw the Manhattan Project, sought thousands of tons of silver to be turned into electrical wires.
Groves got his silver. Why? Because completing the Manhattan Project -- and winning the war -- was America's top priority.
For three years, the Obama administration and its cheerleaders have tried to claim that they stand for the same can-do spirit. Administration officials have a rare form of Keynesian Tourette's syndromewhereby they blurt out phrases like "Infrastructure!" ... "Spending multiplier!" ... "Shovel ready!" ... "Nation-building at home!" ... "Investment!" almost as often as they draw breath. Just last week, President Obama's own handpicked jobs council -- perhaps looking at the fully employed and booming oil state of North Dakota -- advised that the U.S. must embrace an "all-in approach" to the energy sector, including the pursuit of "policies that facilitate the safe, thoughtful and timely development of pipeline, transmission and distribution projects."
Mr. Obama himself has insisted time and again he cares only about "what works" and not about ideological or partisan point scoring. Nary an utterance from the president doesn't include some claim that his "top," "chief," "first" and "number one" priority is to create jobs and get America working again.
Just last week he announced that he wants to streamline government to cut red tape and make both government and the economy more efficient.
It's all a farrago of lies.
Now, maybe they believe all of this stuff, but that doesn't disprove they're lying; it just proves they're lying to themselves, too.
Mr. Obama's decision to block the building of the Keystone pipeline on the grounds that the Congress -- in a bipartisan vote -- didn't give the bureaucrats enough time to study the issue is akin to Leslie Groves accepting that he couldn't have his silver because he failed to ask for it in troy ounces.
The State Department simply didn't have the time, Mr. Obama the alleged red-tape cutter lamented, to check every box on its mountains of triplicated forms. The eight-volume environmental impact statement cogitates on the possible spreading of "137 federally restricted and regulated noxious weeds," as well as an unspecified number of "state and local noxious weeds." By all means, let's hold up a massive infrastructure project that will cost taxpayers nothing and create bountiful jobs and tax revenues so we can check -- again! -- that local noxious weeds don't gain the upper hand (upper leaf?).
It doesn't help Mr. Obama's case that his excuse is a sham. The Keystone pipeline had already been essentially cleared by environmental bureaucrats. Adding the pipeline from Alberta to the Gulf wouldn't scar some pristine wilderness, it would be more like adding just one more string to a spider web, given how many pipelines already crisscross the region.
Opponents say it would threaten the groundwater in Nebraska, where some 21,000 miles of pipeline already exist. But, as the American Enterprise Institute's Kenneth Green notes, any spilled oil would have to flow uphill to reach the Ogallala Aquifer.
Even the unstated but important motives driving opposition to the pipeline are hogwash. The environmentalists to which Mr. Obama is pandering have an understandable, if at times irrational, fear of oil spills and a religious faith in the dangers of global warming. The only problem is that blocking the pipeline will, if anything, increase the likelihood of oil spills because Canada will still bring the oil to market. But if it can't sell it to America it will sell it to China, which will bring it home via tankers, which spill more often -- and more calamitously -- than pipelines. Moreover, China will still burn the oil, meaning the effects -- real or alleged -- on global warming will be the same (or marginally worse, given the "footprint" of tankers). Also, the U.S. will still buy oil -- only we'll get more of it from the Middle East, again via tankers, deepening our dependence on their oil (another Obama bugaboo).
Theories abound as to what's going through Mr. Obama's mind. He wants to deny the Republicans a policy victory. He needs to build the case that the GOP is playing partisan games. He's an ideologue who, like his environmental base, just doesn't like oil. He honestly believes that the bureaucrats need to do yet another environmental study. He's bigoted against infrastructure projects that don't require government planning and taxpayer dollars (like Solyndra).
All of these explanations are plausible. And all of them highlight that his top, chief, first and number one priorities aren't what he says they are.
Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. His e-mail is JonahsColumn@aol.com. Twitter: @JonahNRO.