John Henry Wins in Alabama

December 15, 2017

John_Henry“John Henry was a steel-driven’ man.”

When I was young, there was a song about an African-American folk hero who worked as a steel-driver, hammering six-foot-long steel rods into solid stone so explosives could be placed, obstacles blown away, and the railroad built through mountains. Songs have been written about him, and that is where I first heard the story – probably the Woodie Guthrie or Pete Seeger version. As the story goes, challenged by a steam-driven hammer, John Henry won against all odds.

Back in May when he announced his run for the Senate in Alabama, who would have thought of Doug Jones as a modern-day John Henry?

First, a word about hammers, big hammers. I learned a lesson about hammers early in my career. My first job was on a traveling crew that decontaminated and decommissioned nuclear facilities – power plants, laboratories, industrial plants, anywhere that radioactive materials were used and managed to escape their containment. It was our job to travel to these “hot spots” and clean up other people’s mistakes. Working in the field like that, under hazardous conditions, you learn quickly how to best use your time and resources to get the job done.

One job involved cleaning up a WWII vintage hot lab, basically a row of 12 by 12 concrete rooms with two-foot thick walls where the radioactive materials were handled remotely. The walls were coated to prevent radioactive contamination from leaching into the porous concrete, and of course, this never worked perfectly. We used hand-held power chippers to remove the coating, and when we found radiation in the concrete, we would move up to a more powerful one with a spade tip to chip away the contaminated concrete. If that didn’t work, then a bigger one, and so on. In this one spot, the project manager was excessively cautious as we encountered contamination at progressively deeper levels, and we worked our way incrementally up through about five grades of tool until we got to 90-pound jackhammers and just broke the whole wall into rubble. This step-wise process took too long, it was too expensive, and in the end, no one was happy except the tool rental company.

Here’s the lesson. There are two types of problems – those you attack inch-by-inch, and those you crush with the biggest hammer you can find. Delicate surgery, like the careful removal of something damaging to a patient, is an inch-by-inch problem. Roy Moore and Donald Trump are biggest hammer problems.

I say that because there is a substantial opinion that a Roy Moore win would have been as good, or even better, because it would have saddled the GOP with an albatross of monumental proportions going into upcoming legislative considerations and the 2018 elections. In other words, an inch-by-inch problem for the GOP. That might have been true, and I emphasize might, but the immediate payoff of the total Trump failure to get a lapdog elected in a crimson state, twice, along with the other immediate benefit of a balance-of-power swing away from the Republicans, can only help in the near-term priorities of taxes, child care, health care, voting rights, etc.

I simply don’t trust any politician to persist in doing the right thing over an extended period, and the Roy Moore disqualification procedure would have left too much room for the GOP and Trump to slither out from under while Congress dithers with ethics investigations, hopeless expulsion hearings, etc. Dragging this out has just as much potential for a backfire as it does for success.

When dealing with liars, crooks, and thieves, grab the biggest hammer you can find. In this case, Doug Jones and his team.


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