Thursday, August 02, 2007

Annals of Good Government
(Remembering Tubby Sanders)

One of the joys of working as a City Hall reporter in Louisville, Ky., in the early 1960s was that you got to know Wallace W. “Tubby” Sanders, surely one of the smartest, most high-principled, and all-round most competent public servants I ever had the privilege to know. It was Tubby who explained to me, inter much alia, that (a) most bridges are absurdly over-engineered; but (b) you almost never hear about a bridge falling down. It was he also who told me the story of the great Tacoma Narrows bridge disaster (link), an illustrative example of what happens when good bridges go bad.

You can guess why I am thinking of Tubby Sanders today. I’m not even going to try to keep up with the post-mortems and inevitable finger-pointing over the Minnesota bridge collapse. I do tend to think that Rick Perlstein’s campaign against infrastructure decay is one of the jewels of the blogosphere (link): our infrastructure is in a mess, and it is a spectacular instance of “defining government down.” That said, I note a couple of facts about the Minnesota case:

· It was 40 years old. In bridge years, that is not a lot.

· This is Minnesota, which has a reputation (caricature?) of being one of the best governed states in the nation.

Not really a bridge story: When Alf Landon was chosen to head the GOP ticket in 1936, one of the people who wanted to run for vice-president was New Hampshire Senator Styles Bridges. He didn’t get it, not least because the Republicans couldn’t bear the thought of the campaign slogan “Landon Bridges falling down…” Better minds than mine may find a way to recycle it next year.

Fun facts: Number of casualties in the Tacoma Narrows collapse: one, a cocker spaniel. Name of cocker spaniel: Tubby.

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