The Kablooey Principle

By William Raspberry
Monday, October 3, 2005

Tom DeLay has been indicted for criminal conspiracy, and the former House majority leader's carefully constructed and fiercely defended redoubt of power seems about to go kablooey .

I won't pretend to be dismayed by the prospect. But I do offer a caution against the self-righteousness some of us are inclined to feel at moments like this. DeLay is a bad guy, we find ourselves thinking, and he's getting what bad guys get. So, of course, are people like the Martha Stewart of the Senate, Majority Leader Bill Frist, or FEMA's absurdly incompetent Michael Brown -- or even the president himself. They've been on the wrong side politically (and by our lights, morally), and they're about to get what's coming to them. Just desserts.

Those on the other side politically do the same thing, of course. They weren't exactly dismayed when people like Jim Traficant, Tony Coelho or Jim Wright got what was coming to them .

What I'm suggesting here is that desserts may not have much to do with it.

You may have read about a series of experiments that involved dropping sand, one grain at a time, onto a steel plate. The grains built into a cone that somewhat magically found what scientists called its "angle of repose," and the cone seemed stable for a time. But as more grains fell, there were tiny avalanches here or there before the cone achieved a new stability.

And then, in each of the experiments, came the grain of sand that collapsed the whole affair into a disordered mess. Kablooey . There was nothing about that last grain to distinguish it from any of a million earlier grains and, therefore, no way to predict or prevent the collapse.

My colleague Paul Richard calls it the "kablooey principle," and it happens in life as in labs. We misname it righteous retribution when it happens to our enemies and tragedy when it happens to our friends.

DeLay clearly is not the first politician to be charged with violating state election laws, but he may be the highest-placed public official to have his whole career jeopardized by it.

Bill Clinton's kablooey moment was the result of an illicit sexual affair with an intern -- hardly unique in the annals of politics, but it helped to change the course of the Democratic Party. Brown might have finished his tenure at the Federal Emergency Management Agency as a largely unknown political appointee, but Hurricane Katrina kablooeyed him.

You could make a list: Newt Gingrich, Trent Lott, Mike Espy, Spiro Agnew, Marvin Mandel, Wilbur Mills, Jon Hinson -- and dozens of others whose political careers went kablooey . And in most cases you'd be hard-pressed to name the triggering grain of sand.

I'm not suggesting that any of the people on your list are innocent of the sins that brought them down, only that lack of virtue probably has little to do with it.

Or care, or planning. If only Brown, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco or the Army Corps of Engineers had taken greater care and made better plans, we want to believe, the city of New Orleans (and their reputations) might never have gone kablooey .

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