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A bridge falls and Sam is back

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POSTED: August 22, 2007 5:03 a.m.

News of the Minnesota bridge catastrophe brought memories of a similar tragedy in Georgia and weird feelings of deja vu.

Two days after the fatal collapse of the Minneapolis bridge, former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn was in the headlines for the first time in a long time, hinting he might jump back into national politics.

On Nov. 7, 1972, Nunn first made national news. This political unknown had been elected to the U.S. Senate, but his election was all but eclipsed by another bridge collapse. That same night, a freighter, African Neptune, slammed into the old Sidney Lanier Bridge near Brunswick, causing sections of the bridge to collapse and sending cars toppling into the swift South Brunswick River. Ten people lost their lives.

In Atlanta, statewide election numbers rolled in, giving Nunn a solid victory over his official GOP opponent, former Atlanta Congressman Fletcher Thompson. Nunn’s real foe in that 1972 race had been Democratic Gov. Jimmy Carter’s Senate appointee, Democrat David Gambrell. In the crowded Democratic primary, Nunn campaigned relentlessly against Carter and Gambrell as creatures of "liberal Atlanta." Nunn’s strategy succeeded, as he knocked off Gambrell and went on to swamp Thompson in the general election.

Though there was no love lost between Carter and Nunn, the Georgia governor stood smiling at Nunn’s side during the victory celebration at the senator-to-be’s Atlanta campaign headquarters.

The strained love feast was short-lived.

Bert Lance, Carter’s highway director, phoned the governor to inform him of the disaster in southeast Georgia.

Carter with Lance at his side immediately took off in a light plane for the Brunswick area. They flew into a driving rainstorm to make a shaky landing on Jekyll Island and survey the damage.

Six months later, Carter and Lance had the bridge repaired and reopened. Sam Nunn was in Washington and on his way to becoming one of Georgia’s most influential lawmakers ever. Carter would soon be on his way to the White House with Lance as his national budget director.

Unlike the Minnesota disaster, there was no president in 1972 to promise a massive injection of federal funds to restore the Georgia bridge. The state paid the whole bill.

"We only got one tiny bit of federal help," Lance recalled last week. "The Navy assigned a minesweeper to help us look for lost cars."

Once again, last week, Nunn’s announced possible foray into national politics was all but lost in the cascade of bridge-collapse stories. Nunn expressed disappointment at the direction of both national political parties and wondered if someone like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg could mount a successful independent bid for the presidency. Nunn didn’t say so, but a Bloomberg-Nunn ticket has a fair and balanced ring to it.

By the time Nunn retired from Washington in 1996, he had become easily one of the most powerful lawmakers in the land, especially on national defense and international relations. At home he was noted for keeping federal dollars rolling into the Peach State. Georgia never lost a military base while Nunn was in the Senate. And we never had to worry about a Russian invasion; we had too many forts and jet fighters between Tybee and Brasstown.

Of course, Nunn has kicked the tires on national political bids before, only to decide he had too much baggage to run. He once backed away because of a youthful indiscretion (hey, Sam, we got a guy with an old DUI and more recent beer-drinking problem in the White House now) and because he felt his conservative political past would come back to haunt him.

Since he departed D.C., Nunn has centered his attention on controlling nuclear arms that might find their way into the hands of terrorists. The prestige he enjoyed as a senator has not been diminished.

Almost every brief biography of Nunn notes his remarkable success at bipartisanship and calm deliberation in the Senate. In other words, he was not a rubberstamp or a raving renegade like some of his Georgia successors.

 

You can reach Bill Shipp at P.O. Box 440755, Kennesaw, GA 30160, or e-mail: shipp1@bellsouth.net

 

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