There was a time, decades ago, when competence and good governance were synonymous with good politics.

Republican Former Gov. Richard Thornburgh, who died Dec. 31 at 88, embodied the concept.

Thornburgh rose in the 1970s as the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, where he established a record for fighting white-collar crime and public corruption. He continued those pursuits during the Ford and Carter administrations as the assistant attorney general in charge of the criminal division.

In 1978, he was elected governor. Only 71 days into office, on March 28, 1979, he was challenged by a unique and uniquely massive emergency — the unprecedented partial meltdown of a nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island, just 11 miles down the Susquehanna River from the state Capitol.

The emergency started just 12 days after the release of “The China Syndrome,” a movie about a reactor meltdown in which one character declared that the result might be a cloud of radioactivity that could “render an area the size of Pennsylvania permanently uninhabitable.”

That’s a hard image to counter.

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Thornburgh, relying on science, resisted calls for a general evacuation. Instead, he advised pregnant women and children within 5 miles of the plant to leave, and remained in Harrisburg.

His deft management of the crisis built credibility that helped him execute a moderate Republican agenda. He left office in 1987 with a 72% approval rating and a $350 million surplus.

Thornburgh’s record on public corruption led President Ronald Reagan to appoint him attorney general in 1988 to replace ethically compromised Edwin Meese III, and President George H.W. Bush kept him in that role.

Pennsylvanians should appreciate and mourn a sound governor and, perhaps even more so, the style of politics and governance by which he served the public interest.

— Republican & Herald, Pottsville (TNS)

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