The first time I saw Bobby Jindal, he left Jack Welch, John Sweeney, and a roomful of corporate bigshots, union leaders, and people who generally like to hear themselves talk absolutely dumbfounded.
It wasn’t the first time he’d done this sort of thing, and certainly not the last.
It was 2003, and President Bush’s Medicare plan was coming to Capitol Hill. As every cabinet secretary does in these situations, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson was tasked with marketing the legislative policy to the people who matter—Committee Chairmen, union heads, and a trail of Congresspeople were met for one-on-one sessions, where Tommy would use his trademark aw-shucks Wisconsin glad-handing tactics to try and win their vote.
But on an issue as big as Medicare, and with the controversial Prescription Drug Benefit the president was proposing, there was a need for something bigger than the normal Hill activity. So the heads of GE, the AFL-CIO, and a dozen other captains of industry and labor met in a small back room of the Hay-Adams hotel, across Lafayette Park from the White House, to share their thoughts on the legislation.
Standing against the burgundy wall behind Thompson’s ornate chair, I watched as he went into his traditional spiel in favor of the measure. “This is a first step toward more flexibility, toward more accountability. This is about bringing common sense into a confused and disorganized system. I’ll listen to what you have to say and take it back to the President.” And so on.
Thompson always seemed to me to be a good and kindhearted Midwestern fellow. But like many former governors who were once the unchallenged kings of their state, he would often make the mistake of assuming that the same tactics that worked back home could work here. Where before tough political divisions could be mended in the box at a Packers game, or over a round of brews, or after a cross-county Harley ride, the political creatures who inhabit Washington have no taste for such things. They want money, and power, and credit, and sometimes all of the above. And if they can’t have it, they don’t believe you should, either.
In this meeting, Thompson had walked into a vituperative buzzsaw in the person of Leo Gerard, head of the United Steelworkers. Stout, vulgar, and mustachioed, Gerard was not interested in debate or discussion, but in browbeating Thompson and the business leaders around the table into submission. His policy views were bluntly communist. With a stack of papers at his side, Gerard would cite an odd statistic, use it as the basis for why the American health care system should be more like Sweden’s, then doodle on his notepad while others responded.
The meeting fell apart within fifteen minutes. Thompson just didn’t know how to handle this creature. He quickly found there was no give and take on health care with Gerard—even moving leftward in small areas would never satisfy the union leader. And where Thompson would try to respond with alternate statistics or his knowledge of the situation, Gerard would fall back on anecdotes about workers bleeding in the streets while fat cats got the best health care that money could buy.
Bobby Jindal, at that time a senior policy advisor at HHS, arrived late to the meeting, cracking the door and slipping through. He is a slim and quiet man, with an easygoing smile—but always with the underlying intensity of those truly dedicated to the tasks in front of them. I knew who he was, but had never seen him in person before.
After a few minutes of watching Jack Welch roll his eyes as Gerard launched into another tirade on the virtues of socialist health care, he stepped toward the table.
“Mister Secretary, if I may interject?” he asked. Relieved for the possibility of some help, Thompson nodded assent.
Off the top of his head, Jindal started going down the list. He snapped Gerard’s smaller concerns like dry twigs, citing statistics and anecdotes as if they were memorized specifically for this moment. The larger socialist arguments he hacked into little bits—this won’t work, here’s why it won’t work, and here’s three places where they tried it and it didn’t. He was polite, he was intelligent, and he was passionate. He was ruthless.
Gerard sat, silent and sullen. He tried to respond at one point, but got tied up in knots. He shuffled his papers. He took a sip of water. And he was quiet. Everyone was.
In five minutes, Bobby Jindal made the case for free market solutions, for individual liberty, and for health care that caters to what people need, not what unions want. He did what none of the other men in the room were capable of doing. And it seemed as if it was as easy for him as breathing.
But that’s who Jindal is. It’s who he always has been.
Bobby Jindal was born in Baton Rouge in 1971. His parents were in grad school there, recent immigrants from the Punjab in northern India. He was raised Hindu, but converted to Roman Catholicism in his teens. He went to Louisiana public schools, then Brown University, where he was an honors student in biology and public policy. A Rhodes Scholar, he was admitted to the medical and law schools of both Harvard and Yale—but chose Oxford instead.
It was 1994. He was 23 years old. The whole bright world of Europe was open before him. He had a prestigious consulting job waiting in D.C. But Bobby Jindal was looking back toward home.
Republican Gov. Mike Foster, Jr. the rambunctious chief executive of the state at the time, took notice of Jindal. And before he turned 25, the young policy mind was appointed Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health & Hospitals. They needed him, this kid, to fix the Louisiana health care system—a wreck of a system, facing the worst crisis of mismanagement, fraud, and abuse in its history.
He had to be on the job immediately—so he gave away his furniture, packed up his clothes, and hopped on a plane bound for home. The appointment was “a bit unorthodox,” and that was just in the words of the man who made it.
“Everybody that has met him agrees with me. He is a walking computer...for some reason, his mind is locked in on the medical field,” Foster told the Baton Rouge Rotary Club. “And he is also the kind of guy you can go out and drink a beer with. He’s a nice guy. This is a guy that will, if you sit down with him, give you more confidence that he's got a handle on it and is going to stop solving things with crisis maintenance.”
“I've got as much confidence in Bobby Jindal as any man I’ve ever met.”
“Whiz Kid Takes the Reins,” the headlines said.
Jindal likes to tell the story now of how when he went out on dates, he’d just tell girls that he was “a secretary.” Nobody would believe him if he said what his real job was—or worse, he’d seem like he was bragging. In 1997, he married Supriya Jolly, who was apparently impressed enough by him despite his lowly title.
From 1998 to 1999, Jindal headed up the National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare, the first significant push for reform of the national health care system. The seventeen-member panel was chaired by then-Senator John Breaux, the Louisiana Democrat who, at the time of this article, is reportedly considering returning to Louisiana to run against Bobby in what has all the marks of an epic southern political showdown. Breaux likely won’t do it, though—the latest polls show that the long-serving Senator, who’s been working as a lobbyist in D.C. for several years, would trail the younger Jindal by nearly ten points.
In 1999, Jindal moved homeward again to become the youngest-ever President of the University of Louisiana System. And in 2001, the new President Bush snatched him up, bringing him in to be the idea man at HHS.
It was the kind of career arc that some men take decades to achieve. The next move, in the typical Washington fashion, is to a high-priced private sector job—the corner office, the nice bonus, the big house in walking distance of Georgetown. But Bobby Jindal came back home.
In 2003, he took on Katherine Blanco, the Democrat Lieutenant Governor, to replace the retiring Gov. Foster. After navigating the messy but-oh-so-Louisiana jungle primary, Jindal took first place with 33 percent of the vote. The Times-Picayune endorsed him, as did several Democrats, despite the fact that he was 100% pro-life. No negative campaigner, Jindal stressed his role as a problem solver, and the need to fix the many difficulties plaguing his home state: “I am not a politician, I’m a problem-solver, and Louisiana needs a problem-solver,” he said in his quiet southern accent.
And many of the people listened. But not enough.
On election day, Jindal won a plethora of districts, including Blanco’s home of Lafayette. But in the normally conservative parishes of northern Louisiana, he lost by slim margins. In the last days of the campaign, ads had run in many of these districts that used darkened photos of Jindal and ominous intonations. Some voters just made the choice by color, not by ideas—and Blanco won with 52 percent of the vote.
The private sector called again. Bobby was too smart to waste his time in this effort—come back to Washington, they said, and they said it with bags of money.
Yet a few weeks after the devastating loss, Jindal was on TV again, announcing that he was running for the open seat vacated by Rep. David Vitter, who was vying to replace the outgoing Sen. Breaux. This time, in a safe Republican district, the support was on his side. He won handily, with 78% of the vote.
In Congress, he was elected Freshman Class President. He got several good committee postings. He joined the conservative Republican Study Committee. He started to get used to the idea of being a legislator.
Then, in August of 2005, the skies ripped open. And nothing would be the same again.
At that point of despair, a choice is made: either the cops form lines to rush the burning towers, or they grab a shopping cart and start looking for what they can take.
Bobby Jindal doesn’t tell a lot of stories about what he did during Katrina. Seeing the devastation firsthand does that to you. You have to hear it from the people around him, the people who saw what he did.
A few days after the storm, there was a meeting of the Louisiana principals. Blanco was there, FEMA’s soon-to-be-infamous Michael Brown, a handful of Congressmen, and every local political staffer worth shaking a stick at, and some not even worth that. It was supposed to start at Noon. At 12:30, it still hadn’t. People were milling around, chatting, giving quotes to reporters.
Jindal surveyed the room for a few minutes. Then he saw Blanco and the others pause to look at a television in the corner—it was footage from another press conference they’d had the previous day, broadcasting on CNN. The politicians all stood around, watching themselves on the screen.
Jindal turned to his chief of staff, and said, “Let’s go.”
They climbed into a Ford Excursion and took off looking for what they could do to help. They started with Harry Lee, the infamous Sheriff of Jefferson Parish.
Lee is a typical Louisiana political figure. Born in the backroom of a Chinese laundry in New Orleans, Lee was first elected sheriff in 1979. He’s been there ever since. Popular, controversial, but effective, Lee keeps crime rates consistently low in his parish—despite the fact that his neighbors in Orleans enjoy one of the highest crime rates in America.
During Katrina, Lee commandeered local Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club stores, allowing them to open in spite of FEMA’s request that they remain closed. When the Feds got angry, Lee responded that anyone who tried to close either store would be arrested by deputies. And when the Times-Picayune asked Lee about the 40 deputies who didn’t show up for work after the storm, Lee said he’d told the one officer who’d tried to return late not to waste his time: “As far as I’m concerned, [he] will never get a job in law enforcement again.”
Jindal and his staff found Lee exactly where they expected him to be: eating in a local diner, his unofficial office, powered by generators. Jindal asked him what he and his officers needed. Lee said he needed nothing, of course—but he had a helicopter to spare. Why not put it to use? So Bobby climbed in and headed to the St. Bernard parish, where Sheriff Jack Stephens gave them a list of what he needed.
“I’ll see what I can do,” Jindal said. Lee took care of the numbers 4 and 5—the congressman got the rest.
Before the storm, Michael Brown and the folks at FEMA had told Jindal that they had “resources in place” to respond to the storm, organized and ready to move in with water, food, and clothing in the event the levees broke (though no one really considered such a possibility). Now, these resources were nowhere to be found. Calls to FEMA on the Sat-phone produced nothing at first, followed by lousy excuses.
“Where are the trucks? Where are the medical supplies? Where’s the food?” Jindal and his staff asked.
“Well, we don’t think it’s safe enough to send them in,” was the reply.
An idea: why don’t they give the food, the supplies, everything, to the National Guard. After all, they have guns. If crazed looters try to take the goods, the Guard can, you know, shoot them.
Such an action isn’t authorized here, FEMA responded. The supplies sat where they were for days.
Jindal’s office had set up a hotline number, with the number broadcast over the radio airwaves, for anyone who needed help to call. The calls ranged the full gamut, from the expected to the shocking—from no power, to missing children, to medical supplies needed, to “I’m stuck in my attic with a cell phone and a radio. Please come and save me.”
They had a helicopter pilot call in. He had his helicopter, gassed up and ready to go. But he wanted authorization to go in and save people.
Jindal’s staff called FEMA—they said it was a military issue. They called the Marines—they said it was an issue for the Department of Transportation. They called the DOT—nobody knew who to ask.
Jindal called the helicopter pilot back. “Go in.”
“You got me authorization?” the pilot asked.
“Yeah, I’m giving you your authorization right now.”
A local mayor told Jindal a story after the fact that in retrospect seems like a good symbol for the disconnect between D.C. and Louisiana. After the storm, he’d called FEMA in search of help. They were flooded. They had no power. Can you send someone?
“I’m not authorized to do that, I’ll need to ask my supervisor.”
Thirty minutes on hold.
“Yeah, he’s not able to approve that right now,” the FEMA bureaucrat said. “Could you maybe email the details? I can pass it along then.”
The mayor informed FEMA that no, without electricity, they couldn’t email him. FEMA put them on hold, searching for the answer to this unexpected situation.
Another few minutes. Then they came back on.
“Yeah, see, that’s our protocol here. So if you could find someone to email the details, and then maybe put that last part in the email too? That’d be great.”
FEMA was useless. The governor was looking for someone to blame. Time to solve some problems. Time to use that rolodex.
Jindal and his staff started calling like mad, becoming a de facto volunteer and donation coordinator for the corporate, community, and faith-based entities eager to help. We need a truck with clean water—let’s talk to the beer companies, the soda makers. We need medical supplies—I know a guy with the pharmaceutical companies, they’ll donate something. We need people in boats—let’s talk to the megachurches. They’ve got volunteers up north, but no way to get them here—fine, let’s call down the list to everyone who owns a plane or a helicopter.
One can’t really tell the impact one congressman and his staff had on the recovery from a storm like Katrina. There’s no tangible way to measure it. In simple legislative terms, Jindal did a handful of key things—putting together the relief plan, co-sponsoring the bill to prevent authorities from grabbing guns from legally-authorized owners, pleading for competence in managing the aid to the people of his state.
After being reelected by a wide margin, in January of 2007 Jindal announced that he would return home to run for governor again. Even though the Republican leadership wanted him to take on vulnerable Senator Mary Landrieu, Jindal knew his state, his devastated home, needed him now more than ever.
The polls weren’t even close. In March, faced with a prospect of an election that would uncover the true breadth of her incompetence and mistakes, Gov. Blanco announced that she would not run for reelection. There are just too many stories, and too much truth to be told about the choices she made and didn’t make when people’s lives were on the line.
The remnants of the Louisiana Democratic machine are scrambling to fill her spot—and already, some are admitting publicly that their only hope is to play the race card. Democrat Rep. Charles Melancon mused to reporters that “a white, centrist Democrat can beat Jindal.”
It remains to be seen who they’ll choose. In early polling, Jindal still leads all potential candidates. But Louisiana has a history of difficult, controversial, and crooked elections, and there’s no reason to think this will be any different.
What is different is Jindal. He’s more earnest now, more than just a policy wonk dealing with charts and figures. He’s more dedicated to the ideals he cherishes, because he knows what they mean for his state. He’s older, but it’s not just the years—Katrina aged him. He understands the importance of this race for his home state, for his neighbors, for his family.
In the fall of 2006, Jindal’s wife was pregnant with her third child. In the middle of the night, in their home in Kenner, Louisiana, she awoke to the pain of contractions, days before she was expected to deliver. They called the hospital, and got ready to leave—but it quickly became obvious that this child was coming out, and it was coming out right now.
At 3:25 AM, before the paramedics could arrive, the congressmen delivered his third child, a son named Slade Ryan Jindal, into the world.
“[My wife] told me, ‘Make sure to get everything out of his mouth.’ I said, ‘I don't think there is any obstruction. He’s screaming,’” Jindal told the Times-Picayune.
“She asked me if there were 10 fingers and toes. I told her there were. She asked if it was a boy or a girl. I told her it was a boy…It was all so quick. It was over in 30 minutes,” he said. He put the baby in his wife’s arms, and tied off the umbilical cord with a shoelace.
“You don’t have time to think about calling anyone for help. It’s your wife and son. You just do what you have to do.”
This fall, Louisiana can choose the old ways of doing things, the corrupt ways, the status quo. They can fall back. Or they can move forward under the leadership of the brilliant young policy wonk who chose his home over comfort and financial success. They can take this opportunity to walk in a better path, a path toward solving their problems, fixing the crushed houses and streets, and do what they have to do to make this broken state new again.
The choice is theirs to make.