Louisiana, from Huey and Earl Long to Jimmie Davis, John McKeithen, and Edwin Edwards, has a well-earned reputation of electing colorful—and controversial—governors. It is, therefore, something of a paradox that the one who would aspire to play on the national stage would be described as a policy wonk with no personality and nothing in common with the others.
While Bobby Jindal is unquestionably intelligent, he, unlike the others, is woefully inadequate in his ability to relate to his constituents on a one-on-one basis or to field hard questions from a skeptical press. To put it bluntly, he simply lacks the skills to relate to the man in the street, forced instead to fall back on his time-worn but well-rehearsed rhetorical philosophy designed to appeal to his ultra-right-wing political base. Jindal perhaps is best described as Ben Stein (the economics teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) without the charisma.
Even when he does stray from his tightly-controlled script in an effort to draw a laugh, his efforts usually languish. In 2014, he made an appearance at the Gridiron Dinner in Washington and followed that the next night with an address to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) and set up the same joke about Attorney General Eric Holder at both events by saying, “I see Eric Holder is with us…” The problem was Holder was not at CPAC (nor would he ever have been expected to be) and the gag fell embarrassingly flat (cue the chirping crickets).
A good politician, like a good standup comic, always knows his audience. Lyndon Johnson once said he had no use for any politician who, thirty seconds after entering a room, could not tell who was for him and who was against him. Lyndon Johnson would have no use for Jindal. Nor would Edwin Edwards who could always be counted on for a quip appropriate to the crowd or the event. No one but Edwards would, after getting a hug from a nun in Monroe, dare say something like, “Careful, Sister, I don’t want to get into any habits.” Nor could Jindal ever get away with saying (as did Edwards) the only way he could lose an election (against David Duke in 1991) would to be “caught in bed with a dead girl or live boy.”
Instead, when Jindal talks, he comes across as stilted and decidedly wooden, inflexible. He cannot speak off the cuff; everything is rehearsed, which is why every speech sounds like all the others. He is unnatural and exhibits absolutely no understanding—or compassion—for the single working mom, for the working poor unable to afford health care insurance, or for the tax burden of the middle class, a result of his generous tax breaks to business and industry. His limp handshake only serves to underscore his disdain for pressing the flesh (to borrow a term from LBJ).
His railing against Washington and President Barrack Obama is vaguely reminiscent of Robert F. Kennon in his run for a second term as governor in 1963. I spent a day with Kennon in 1983 and he relayed an interesting story to me. He had crisscrossed the state during the ’63 campaign, repeating his familiar slogan: “Send Kennon to Baton Rouge and (President) Kennedy back to Massachusetts.” The slogan caught fire and Kennon surged to the lead in the polls ahead of key rival New Orleans Mayor deLesseps Morrison (that would be “Dellasoups,” to Uncle Earl). Public Service Commissioner John McKeithen, meanwhile, slogged along with his own aw-shucks slogan: “Won’t you he’p me?” Then, on November 22, the eve of the governor’s election, Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas and overnight, public opinion was turned on its head. Kennon was out, McKeithen finished second to Morrison and then won in a runoff. “Kennedy’s assassination beat me,” he told me 20 years later.
I also spent an entire day as a young newspaper reporter in 1971 riding with McKeithen near the end of his second term as he toured the LSU agriculture station in Homer in Claiborne Parish prior to an address to the local chamber of commerce that night. The tour was not one of those events where the politician breezes in, shakes a couple of hands and departs, leaving it to his press office to call it a “tour.” Instead, McKeithen, fascinated with innovations at the Ag station, spent the entire day learning about how the station personnel managed to get productive timberland to serve the dual purpose of grazing land for the farm’s cattle. “I’ve never seen cattle graze in timberland,” said McKeithen, himself a cattle rancher.
And during McKeithen’s entire visit at Homer that day, there was not a state trooper security detail anywhere in sight. Not one. Zilch. Jindal, on the other hand, never goes anywhere without a coterie of state police security, even during his presidential run which has taken him out of Louisiana for more than 45 percent of his final years as governor—all at the expense of Louisiana taxpayers.
Even in retirement, John McKeithen kept the common touch. In the late 1980s, I resided next door to his son, Secretary of State Fox McKeithen. The younger McKeithen had a pecan tree in his front yard and on many mornings when I walked outside to retrieve my Baton Rouge Advocate, there would be Big John walking around the yard picking up pecans. Somehow, it’s just impossible to conjure up an image of Bobby Jindal walking around picking up pecans off the ground. He’d almost certainly have a state trooper from his security detail performing that task.
Jimmie Davis not only was an immensely popular singer, but a spellbinding storyteller as well. He told a great one about Edwards. When Davis left office in 1964, he built a new home behind the governor’s mansion. Both the Davis home and the governor’s mansion were across the lake from the State Capitol and Davis said once he was in his back yard “knocking down dirt dauber nests, wasp nests, pulling weeds and killing snakes,” out of the corner of his eye he caught then-Governor Edwards strolling purposely toward the lake. As he watched, he suddenly realized that Edwards was intent on walking to the Capitol…across the lake. “He’s going to try to walk on the lake,” Davis thought. Sure enough, Edwards did indeed begin walking across the lake and made it about halfway before suddenly sinking. “There wasn’t anything I could do,” Davis said, “but walk out there, pull him up out of the water and carry him the rest of the way.”
We can thank Davis, by the way, for the Sunshine Bridge over the Mississippi River at Donaldsonville, for the current governor’s mansion, and for the implementation of civil service as protection of state employees from political patronage.
As a political junkie, I have followed Louisiana’s governors all the way back to Uncle Earl. I vividly remember Earl’s mental breakdown, his commitment to a couple of mental hospitals and his subsequent escapes. I recall his defeat of incumbent U.S. Rep. Harold McSween in 1960 only to die of heart failure ten days later. As a teenager, I read every book about Huey and Earl Long that I could lay my hands on. Rather than cut funding for services, Huey increased the miles of paved highways in Louisiana from 300 to 3,000. Rather than deprive the poor of health care, he built Big Charity Hospital in New Orleans that operated as a teaching hospital for Tulane and LSU medical schools while providing care for the poor. Instead of slashing appropriations for higher education, Huey made LSU a top tier university. Jindal, hell-bent on cutting taxes for industry and the rich, allowed the state’s infrastructure to crumble. He denied Medicaid expansion, thus depriving 300,000 of the state’s poor adequate medical care. Budget cuts under Jindal’s leadership proved disastrous to higher education, forcing tuition increases that were unaffordable to low income students.
But after all is said and done, it was Earl Long who was the real visionary. Jindal beats his chest, refusing to accept Medicaid expansion. He fought Common Core, defiantly boasting that he would not allow Washington or the liberal media to sway him. But even as Mississippi’s Ross Barnett, Alabama’s George Wallace, and Arkansas’ Orville Faubus were pledging “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” Earl saw the writing on the wall early on and prepared for the future accordingly.
When Orleans Parish legislators approached him in the 1950s about locating a public university in New Orleans, Earl readily agreed—on one condition: the school would be open to whites and blacks alike. Higher education was integrated in Louisiana years before James Meredith entered Ole Miss and before George Wallace stood in the doorway at the University of Alabama. Rather than cutting education, Earl originated the hot lunch program in Louisiana’s public elementary and high schools, providing students affordable lunches—his proudest accomplishment.
Earl refused to take political advantage of the fever-pitch emotions that were boiling over in Baton Rouge over the desegregation fight with the federal government. His most famous confrontation was with Plaquemines Parish political boss Leander Perez, who refused to acknowledge the changing times and attempted to pass sweeping legislation in Baton Rouge to resist the growing tide of desegregation. “What’re you gonna do now, Leander?” Earl shouted at his nemesis at one point. “The feds have the A-bomb!”
Dave Treen, the quintessential Republican, who served as governor from 1980-1984, proposed a $450 million tax on oil and gas to hold the industry accountable for damage to the state’s coastal marshes. The Coastal Wetlands Environmental Levy (CWEL), which he said would place no undue burden on any individual or group, fell twelve votes short of the necessary two-thirds approval in the House after being vehemently opposed by oil and gas interests and the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI).
That stands in stark contrast to Jindal, who, beholden to the oil companies for their financial support of his political campaigns, was in bitter opposition to (and eventually succeeded in killing) a lawsuit against 97 oil and gas companies by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East (SLFPA-E) seeking to force the companies to restore the state’s damaged wetlands.
These are the personality and philosophical traits sorely lacking in Jindal’s psychological makeup. He cannot champion the working people of Louisiana—or America—in the manner of Huey Long. He could never negotiate the peace between warring factions the way in which Edwin Edwards could get both sides to comprise—and like it. Jindal, with his disconcerting rapid-fire speaking manner, is devoid of the ease with which Jimmie Davis could hold an entire room captive with his homespun humor. His response to Obama’s State of the Union Address in 2009 proved that beyond any doubt. He could never be relaxed after more than five minutes of visiting something as ordinary as an agricultural station in north Louisiana but McKeithen, on the other hand, was right at home. Earl may have had mental issues, but even in his deteriorated emotional state, he stood head and shoulders above Jindal in his ability—and willingness—to do for people what they could not do for themselves.
There does not exist a hole sufficiently deep to bury the differences between Jindal and any one of those six governors. To somehow think he is presidential timber is simply beyond comprehension. He would be wise to consider the human element of leadership over any poll results.