The Jindal Special

A look at the rise and record of the Catholic governor of Louisiana.

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has a 100 percent pro-gun control voting record, with one all-important exception. In a July 2006 roll call vote on an amendment to the Department of Homeland Security emergency appropriations package, the Illinois congressman voted to “prohibit the confi scation of a firearm during an emergency or major disaster” so long as possession of said guns was allowed under state law.

The driving force behind the measure was then-congressman and now-Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal (rhymes with spindle). During the fallout from Hurricane Katrina, federal agents and New Orleans policemen had joined forces, not to put down the looters or chase murderous thugs, but to confiscate the firearms of law-abiding citizens.

First-term congressman Jindal introduced legislation in the House of Representatives to put a stop to the confiscations and Senator David Vitter followed suit in the Senate. The House and the Senate approved it by votes of 322-99 and 84-16.

Jindal put many otherwise pro-gun control senators, including Obama, into a tight spot. They could side with the gun grabbers, literally, at a time when the rest of country was paying attention to and angry about government mismanagement of the disaster relief efforts. Or they could anger their antigun activist supporters.

Obama took the path of least resistance, then and in the Democratic primaries. But, privately, he told a group of affluent supporters in San Francisco that many rural white residents were unwilling to vote for him because they insisted on clinging to their guns and their religion. Publicly, he launched a charm offensive to downplay the issue.

First, Obama said that he could understand how people who live in sparsely populated areas might need a gun, since cops can’t respond quickly to threats. Then he endorsed a limited “individual right” to carry guns, albeit one subject to serious regulations.

When the recent Supreme Court Heller decision came down in June, invalidating the District of Columbia’s ban on handguns in homes, many of Obama’s fellow Democrats complained about the decision. Logically, Obama should have been among them.

In the Illinois legislature, he had voted against legislation that would have stopped prosecutions of citizens who used fi rearms in their homes in self defense, and he once fi lled out a candidate issue questionnaire by indicating that he would support a total handgun ban. Instead, the Democratic nominee praised the ruling, effectively ending his party’s advocacy of bans and more far-reaching gun control laws.

The outcome was a Jindal special. He is celebrated and loathed for his penchant for putting opponents in awkward positions—and watching them falter. Rarely is he written about without the reporter noting his “rising star” status in the Republican Party. He appears regularly on such programs as The
Tonight Show, Larry King Live, Hardball
, and hard news programs.Jindal was the subject of furious vice presidential speculation until he publicly took himself out of the running in July—following a meeting with John McCain on his Arizona ranch. After Jindal announced he wouldn’t be on the Republican ticket, a group at the Facebook website was created to draft him for the keynote speaker slot at the Republican National Convention.

It’s telling that in the discussions among conservatives about Jindal’s hypothetical vice presidential candidacy, the concerns ran from timing (“Is he ready yet?”) to tactics (“Won’t it hurt his chances in 2012 if he runs now?”) to the amusingly indulgent (“Wouldn’t he be bored as vice president?”). Few on his side of the political aisle doubt that Jindal will one day make a serious run at the presidency. Talk radio host Rush Limbaugh has compared him to Ronald Reagan.

But is Jindal’s newfound superstar status due to his accomplishments, to an incredibly shallow Republican bench, or to something else? He is, after all, only 37 years old. He worked in his state’s health and university systems, lost his fi rst race for governor, served one term in the House of Representatives, and is currently in the fi rst year of his fi rst term as the state’s chief executive. What’s more, his tenure as governor hasn’t been without incident. Recent missteps prompted the fi ling of multiple recall petitions by several angry former supporters.

What is it about Jindal that has not only conservatives but many mainstream media types swooning?

The cynical explanation is that people love a good story and Jindal’s story fits with a treasured narrative about the American immigrant experience. He is a first-generation American, the child of father Amar and mother Raj. These ambitious Punjabi Indians came to America for graduate school and decided to stay.

The Jindals hadn’t planned to stay for long, but it’s worth observing that they arrived in the country in 1970 at a time when America’s assimilationist ethos was on the wane. The US had long been known as the melting pot—a good metaphor for how the system used to work. Large waves of immigrants would be allowed to enter the country for a time, followed by legally mandated restrictions, or “pauses,” to give the nation time to stir in the newcomers by Americanizing them. Immigration officials changed difficult-sounding names to easy-sounding names such as “Smith.” Private Christian charities helped to integrate newcomers by offering financial assistance and invitations to church.

The increased flow of immigrants from the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, the crowding out of private charities by welfare programs, and multiculturalism changed this ethos. Americanization came to be seen as a form of cultural imperialism, so immigrants were no longer officially encouraged to put the Old World in the past. Rather, they were encouraged to hold on to their traditions, and customs, and languages.

Former Vice President Al Gore best expressed this new lionization of “all our separate identities” when he mistranslated the unofficial motto printed on the nation’s coins and seal, “E pluribus unum,” as “out of one, many.” With the machinery of assimilation all gummed up, Jindal decided to take matters into his own hands. His given name is Piyush, but as a child he insisted on being called “Bobby” after Bobby Brady on “The Brady Bunch,” and it stuck. He abandoned his family’s Hindu religion and converted to evangelical Christianity and, fi nally, to Catholicism. He looks but doesn’t sound at all Indian. If you close your eyes and listen to him talk, you hear an articulate man with a slight Louisiana drawl.

Jindal has learned Southern manners and a fanatical attachment to local sports teams. When he won the governorship, he said—recalling his fi rst unsuccessful run—that “four years ago, I had the privilege of coming and telling you that LSU had beaten Alabama, but that we had lost. Four years later, I’m here to tell you we just took the lead over Auburn—and we’ve won.”

His victory last year as the fi rst Indian governor in the US set off celebrations in his father’s Khanpura village. “It’s a great honor not just for our family, but Punjab and the nation as well as the son of this soil [to] have achieved something really big,” Bobby’s cousin Gulshan Jindal excitedly explained to the Times of India.

Jindal has not denied his familial attachments but he’s been wary of ethnic politics. He’s stated several times, “The only colors that matter are red, white, and blue,” and taken great care with how he uses his immigrant story.

The Louisiana pol praises his parents by casting their experiences in terms that were a reality for most Americans’ grandparents or great-grandparents. Jindal’s father was “the fi rst and only child of nine to even go to high school,” and his parents’ sacrifi ces, combined with abundant American opportunities, convinced their son that real progress is possible.

His political style is that of a reformer, not a radical. When Jindal won the governorship, he told supporters that they shouldn’t ever “let anyone talk badly about Louisiana.”

This year at a National Rifle Association dinner, Jindal was recognized for his success in forcing pro-gun control senators to back down. He held forth
at length on the reforms that Louisian is enacting under his administration: taxes are being cut, budgets trimmed, education reforms advanced, and ethics laws have been completely overhauled. He explained that Louisianans are in the process of changing “everything except our great food and culture.”

That’s putting it too softly. Louisiana is a state that Competitive Enterprise Institute President Fred Smith, who grew up there, says “doesn’t merely tolerate corruption. It insists on it.” It’s a part of the culture. One of the reasons the New Orleans cleanup effort is going slowly is that so much money has been wasted or, worse, has just disappeared, and this doesn’t strike locals as unusual. Genteel corruption is seen as part of the natural order in Louisiana. If Jindal is to make a real difference, he’ll have to shake up the state’s culture as well.

Jindal is being cheered on in his efforts by those citizens who don’t simply want to gradually reform the system but want to completely change the way their state government works. They understand deeply how much of a break with the past his agenda represents and they don’t want him going wobbly and letting the old order reassert itself.

That’s why Jindal got himself into such hot water with his indecision on the state legislature’s pay increase issue. Legislators wanted him to support a bill that would effectively double their salaries and make future pay increases automatic. Jindal wanted them to pass several bills that were important to his reform agenda. So an implicit bargain was struck.

Jindal said that he opposed the legislation, but left the impression that his opposition was ambivalent. He promised voters that he wouldn’t sign it into law and legislators that he wouldn’t veto it. Since bills become law after two weeks without the governor’s veto, that was his way of giving it the go-ahead without actually endorsing it.

As bargains go, this was defensible. There was a reasonable prudential case to be made for the increase. The salaries were fairly low and it can make sense to couple serious ethics reform with sizeable pay increases, since salaries have been held down by the expectation that there are other “perks” attached to the office. At least that way, voters can know what they are paying for.

But he didn’t bother to make that argument and the timing and the symbolism of the bill were catastrophic. The legislature was voting itself a huge pay increase at the same time the state government was attempting to rein in spending. The straight-shooting reformist governor was trying to have it both ways. He wanted to buy some cooperation at the same time that he cracked down on graft.

It didn’t play well with Jindal supporters, some of whom were so angry that they filed separate recall petitions and started collecting signatures. Local talk show hosts railed against the bargain and the governor’s office was on the receiving end of mass e-mail and phone call campaigns.

Jindal tried in vain to explain that he had promised legislators that he would not veto the bill. He finally gave in to public pressure and vetoed the bill on the last possible day, explaining that he had “clearly made a mistake.” Writing in The American Spectator, Joseph Lawler extracted the lesson, “Perhaps the ‘Jindal for V.P.’ bumper stickers in Baton Rouge were premature.”

Looking ahead to 2012, Lawler described some of the bars Jindal will have to clear and predicted that one of those hurdles will be the Louisiana governor’s piety. His Catholicism strongly colors his politics and secularists have marked him down as a target.

Jindal earned a 100 percent rating from the National Right to Life Committee for his votes against abortion and government funding for embryodestructive stem cell research, and he opposes all abortions except those to save the life of the mother. He has drawn flack for signing a bill that allows the work of intelligent design proponents to be presented in Louisiana public schools.

A recent case on the constitutionality of forced exorcisms brought to light an article that he’d written in 1994 for the Catholic publication New Oxford Review about an exorcism in which he assisted during college. The piece was not an argument but a first-person account of an unusual experience from over a decade ago, but it made waves and is likely to come up again if he runs for president.

If so, that will make the second time that a New Oxford Review article has been used against Jindal in a campaign. When he was running for governor last year, Democrats selectively quoted an article that he penned about Catholic doctrine to smear him as anti-Protestant, but the smear didn’t take. It was a bayou blowout. He won 53 percent of the vote in a milti-candidate race, to his closest challenger’s 19 percent.

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