The Cautionary Tale of Bobby Jindal

Over the last eight years, I’ve published hundreds of articles about Bobby Jindal, which is the primary reason I was hoping his presidential campaign  would have lasted much longer than it did. As one of his fiercest and most prolific critics, I realized, selfishly, that a competitive Jindal campaign would have likely provided me with opportunities to speak to a much broader, national audience.

Unfortunately for me, however, Bobby Jindal decided to suspend his flailing, quixotic, and desperate campaign for president, once and for all, on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015, only three full days before David Vitter, a man that most voters associated with Jindal despite their mutual and abundantly obvious disdain for one another, lost his bid to replace Jindal in the Governor’s Mansion by 12.2 points.

No doubt, this was a landslide victory for the Democratic challenger, John Bel Edwards, a two-term state representative from Amite who had never earned more than 10,000 votes in either of his two state rep campaigns. On Saturday, Nov. 21st, however, Edwards received more than 646,000. The once little-known country lawyer with a seat in the state house and a legacy of service– John Bel is an army ranger, a West Point graduate, and a veteran coming from a long line of law enforcement officers in their native Tangipahoa Parish– won. His brother is their current Sheriff; their father was the former sheriff, and so too were their grandfather and great-grandfather.

On Monday, Nov. 23rd, Sean Collins Walsh of The Austin American Statesman traveled to Amite in order to meet the Gov.-elect’s family and friends and get a better understand of what motivates and inspires the man. Quoting from Walsh:

At the close of the 19th century, the Piney Woods of southeastern Louisiana were descending into anarchy. People were being killed in cold blood, but their murderers stayed free because law enforcement officers and prosecutors were taking sides in the feud that was fueling the violence. In 1897, Millard Edwards, a sheriff’s deputy, finally sent the governor a desperate telegram: “There are two sides arrayed against each other and each has many influential friends there so it is practically impossible to suppress the lawlessness.”

The governor castigated the sheriff for failing to control the area and commended the deputy for taking matters into his own hands. Edwards would go on to become the sheriff of Tangipahoa Parish, as would his son, his grandson and his great-grandson. On Saturday, another of his great-grandsons, John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, was elected governor in a stunning defeat for Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter.

….

“The scandal when he was in Washington and that madam business, that sticks with you,” said Hollis Bankston, 71, a retired dairy farmer who still goes to the bi-weekly auction because it’s a “social event.”

Like many people in Amite City, Bankston said he is a conservative but votes “for the best man” and doesn’t align himself with either party. The Edwards family, he said, is full of good men and is still known for its role in resolving the “bloody Tangipahoa” days. “They came in and cleaned it up,” Bankston said.

In town, Robert Russell, 39, a Marine veteran and lumberjack, was barbecuing chicken on his lawn, which is three doors down from the home Edwards grew up in. He said he felt “embarrassed by Vitter” and thinks a member of the Edwards family would help the state’s reputation.

“They’re upstanding citizens, they’re all straight arrows, down to earth, one of us,” he said.

You would be hard-pressed to find any one of either Bobby Jindal or David Vitter’s neighbors willing to speak so affectionately and so genuinely about them.

But I want to return my experiences with outgoing Gov. Bobby Jindal. We’d seen each other a few times, but we never interacted personally until at small party at the Governor’s Mansion. (I actually do not recall the purpose or the date of the party). After Jindal assembled the guests to listen to the speech he prepared, he spoke briefly and then began working the audience. This was during his first term, before I was relatively well-known among the political class in Louisiana, and well before Jindal’s epic collapse in the polls.

He’s a thin and unimposing man with an awkward smile and an uncomfortable laugh, and because I’d once seem him on national television, I may have been slightly nervous. When Jindal finally introduced himself to me, I didn’t know what to say. “You know, Gov. Jindal, I somehow photobombed half of the photos that were taken of you tonight.”

“Is that so?” he asked. The next month, this picture appeared on the front page of the Louisiana Municipal Monthly:

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Jindal, for all of his faults, is a completely unique, absolutely maddening, and utterly fascinating character, a series of walking contradictions: A Rhodes Scholar with a degree in biology from Brown University who embraces the most radically anti-science fringes in the world, the son of Indian immigrants who was conceived in India and born in Baton Rouge who precociously anglicized his name as a toddler, converted to Catholicism as a teenager, and attempted to become a leading advocate for a radical brand of evangelical theocracy as an adult. Today, when Jindal speaks about immigration policy, he says things like, “immigration without assimilation is invasion,” a pithy talking point that, ultimately, is about perpetrating white hegemony. The portrait he has kept on the wall of his office for all of these years, the very first thing one sees upon arrival, is Bobby Jindal as a white man.

Don’t get me wrong: I am immensely thankful that Jindal is leaving the Governor’s Mansion soon, but I also have to admit, even at the risk of sounding patronizing, that I feel slightly sorry for Bobby Jindal. If, during the last seven years, Bobby Jindal had simply felt comfortable in his own skin, things could have turned out differently and his legacy could have been saved. Right now, I know three different professional writers and scholars working on books about Bobby Jindal (though one of them may have decided to hold off for a while).

Like them, I believe the subject is ripe for a book, because Jindal’s story forces us to confront and to contemplate difficult questions about the construction of self-identity, religion, ethnicity, shame, and narcissism and the ways in which a minority candidate in the Republican Party existentially  struggles to become a fully-informed member of white hegemony, which, for some reason, is a prerequisite. Jindal, the policy wonk with the butt cut and the khakis pants and polo, decided to add a little gel in his hair, strap on some tight-fighting jeans, and a flashy belt buckle, and maybe, just maybe, they’d believe their 135lb Indian-American nerdy governor was some sort of urban cowboy and not satire.

Jindal failed because he was not himself, ever. Sure, he won two gubernatorial elections in landslides, and instead of spending all of that precious political capital on schools, highway, hospitals, coastal restoration, criminal justice reform, secondary and higher education, and infrastructure, Bobby Jindal spent every last penny of his political capital on himself.

Today, like most of the agencies he ran, Bobby Jindal bankrupted his political capital, and he didn’t even have the decency to spend it here.