(This column was released for publication prior to Hurricane Isaac making landfall.)
TAMPA, Fla. -- Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is either the luckiest or unluckiest man in America. Every year about this time, he gets slammed with a potentially catastrophic natural disaster and has to miss all the fun.
He’s become the Anderson Cooper of politics. Like Cooper, who became a hurricane icon in his earlier days on CNN -- clinging at right angles to palms trees like a human flag at half-staff -- Jindal is Bobby-On-The-Spot.
This week, his nemesis is Hurricane Isaac, which has been bearing down on his state’s coast. As he did four years ago when Hurricane Gustav intervened, Jindal has bailed on the Republican National Convention. “Party conventions are interesting,” he tweeted, convincing no one. “But there’s no time for politics here in Louisiana.”
Well, that depends.
True enough, hurricanes and other disasters help organize one’s priorities. If by politics, Jindal means he doesn’t have time for small talk or even stemwinders, he’s right as rain. Based on my own observations and interviews with Jindal, no one less enjoys the glad-handing required of politicians than Jindal. He’s far too serious a thinker -- and his multitasking attention span too like a hummingbird’s -- to long enjoy the silky, languorous, storytelling tempo of, say, his neighbor and former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.
It must be painful for someone like Jindal to stand by as lesser mortals try to wrap their minds around policy issues he wrestled to the ground as a mere child. At age 24, Jindal, then-secretary of Louisiana’s Department of Health and Hospitals, magically transformed Louisiana’s Medicaid program from a $400 million deficit to a $220 million surplus. At 26, he led a bipartisan Medicare reform plan.
You get the picture. This is to say that Jindal may have skipped gleefully out of the GOP spotlight en route to tackle what others might consider a logistics nightmare. The tropical storm season proffers an opportunity for Jindal to do what he does best -- work. And, perhaps to feel more fully human than whatever it is politicians become while trying to appear human.
Disasters not only have a way of providing insights into people’s character, they tend to liberate us from ourselves. Walker Percy once pondered why people are happiest when in the midst of a crisis. In “The Message in the Bottle,” he wrote:
“Why do people often feel so bad in good environments that they prefer bad environments? ... Why is a man apt to feel bad in a good environment, say suburban Short Hills, N.J., on an ordinary Wednesday afternoon? Why is the same man apt to feel good in a very bad environment, say an old hotel on Key Largo during a hurricane?”
This is not to minimize the seriousness of a storm or its sometimes catastrophic effects, obviously. But the philosophical question allows a little breathing room as we consider The Meaning of Isaac (beyond the evangelical interpretations certain to come). Jindal might have been a character in a Percy novel, an ordinary man on a straight path, suddenly propelled by circumstances to be extraordinary. Even though most Americans know Jindal only through his disastrous response to President Obama’s first address to a joint session of Congress in 2009, for which Jindal had been over-prepped to appear “normal,” he became governor in large part because of his rolled-sleeves, rule-breaking approach to the post-Katrina recovery.
He was a bull in a china cabinet full of precious bureaucrats, most of whom got so tangled up in red tape they couldn’t act. Jindal, whose physical stature and boyish looks condemn him to a lifetime of perpetual youth, plowed through the mud and misery like a Marine-turned-Avatar. Louisiana’s mostly Democratic sheriffs, who hold the real power in the parishes, hoisted their boy wonder above the storm surge and into the mansion in Baton Rouge. The Sheriffs’ Association’s endorsement is pure gold in Louisiana politics.
“Brains count,” one of them ruminated to me by way of explanation.
This is a true thing, though Republicans become almost apologetic when they seem too smart. Why is this? Why are they always trying to dim their brightest lights so that voters will “like” them? That’s a Percy question that will have to wait another day. For now, while GOPers strut and fret upon the convention stage, all eyes will be riveted on events further up the Gulf Coast.
And Bobby Jindal, rain-slickered and ready, may be the happiest Republican on the planet.