When the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed during rush hour on Aug. 1, 2007, Mayor R.T. Rybak hurried back to Minneapolis from a recruiting event for the Obama campaign in St. Cloud. He worked with little rest through the night and into the next day – surveying the wreckage, meeting with victims and their families, briefing the media. (This excerpt from Rybak’s forthcoming autobiography, “Pothole Confidential” ($24.95), republished with permission from the University of Minnesota Press, describes events on Aug. 3.)
The following morning I was at the airport with Governor Pawlenty and his wife to meet President George Bush. Standing on the tarmac watching Air Force One land, I thought how surreal it was to meet a president for the first time, under these conditions. The president walked down the stairs, greeted the Pawlentys, then came up to me and said:
I couldn’t understand so he repeated:
Finally, a third time, slower, he said, “Your eyes are red. You have to get some sleep.”
“Thank you, Mr. President, I understand that but we kind of have a lot on our hands with …”
“Sleep is really important!”
This wasn’t exactly what I expected to be talking with the president about at this moment but it was nice, and he continued to be exceptionally kind as we got into his helicopter with Senators Norm Coleman and Amy Klobuchar, as well as members of the congressional delegation.
We got to the bridge and, as we walked, the stories of all the families I had met washed over me. As we turned to see the site, and just beyond the horrible sight of all the destruction, we saw a giant American flag someone had draped over the neighboring Tenth Avenue bridge.
Deeply moved, I turned around with the president and an entourage and began walking away when I noticed a man in a Twins cap yucking it up a few yards away. I thought, “What kind of a jackass would be cracking jokes in a Twins cap at a time like this?” As I got closer the man reached out his hand and warmly introduced himself: “Hi, Karl Rove.”
Before the president left, he and I went into the nearby Red Cross building to meet a couple of the families of victims. I was struck by how warmly and sincerely he connected on a very personal level with those families. I was also struck that I was standing with the political leader I disagreed with on almost every issue and how much that did not matter.