So the time came, and we went to the place where the men were building a wall to stop the water. The tilted blades of the Black Hawk helicopter made a heavy whut-whut sound as they arced through the air above us – ferocious, unrelenting, yet somehow comforting to the ear. Beneath us, the lazy curves of the Mississippi River stretched and sighed in the afternoon sun, the roiling water full of life and memory. As the rotor turned, I remembered the drawl of the smiling Natchez lawyer who told me when I was younger that this River carried in itself the story of America – which, to my Jackson-born ears, sounded like a loftier way of saying that this carved-out scar of flowing water was big, it was unstoppable, and without it, none of us would be. Or if we were, we would not be children of the American South, taught tales from the crib of the tragic accidents of history – brought up with the knowledge that existence is a fragile, fate-filled thing.
The wall was in Pointe Coupee Parish, and the men building it were soldiers from the 225th Engineering Brigade. It was an amazing site from the sky, following the line of the Potato Levee along the Atchafalaya River Basin, an unbroken line of 4 foot by 4 foot sacks glinting white in the sunlight. We set down in the mud and walked to where they were sealing a final hole, mashing 3,000 pounds of dirt into the stretched sacks, donated by a local company – when filled, as strong as a bunker. Much better than the ones we used in ‘83, said one veteran who worked on saving the same swathe of land 25 years ago. When finished, it would stretch for more than two miles.
The farmers were sincere men, sunburned and smiling in their checked shirts. They saluted the National Guard members with the eagerness of young boys, and could not stop thanking anyone who was anyone. You would do that too, of course, if someone’s action and quick response was about to save your nearly 6,000 acres of wheat and soybeans. But what you wouldn’t be able to do, of course, was cook them a meal like these farmers did.
“What are you boys eating?” one of the farmer’s wives had asked on the first day.
“Not in South Louisiana you’re not,” the farmers said. So that night the men feasted on crawfish, étouffée, fried catfish and homemade bread. And then they went back to building the wall.
Only a few days earlier, the farmers had sent a group to talk to Louisiana’s new governor, Bobby Jindal, pleading for help. They hadn’t known what to expect. But they never expected this.
“I was very surprised they sent out the National Guard,” farmer Marty Graham told a local reporter. He and the other men had been working furiously with their wives and children, using makeshift sandbags, with little hope of finishing by the time the water crested. But by Monday, the help came. And so the big wide-shouldered Louisiana farmers met the slim governor, youngest in the nation, as they would a conquering hero.
Out of earshot of the soldiers, I asked one of the farmers what he thought of Governor Jindal. He squinted at me, as if surprised I didn’t know his answer already, then smiled. He answered seriously:
“He’s the man.”
We flew back toward the capitol building and the warring politicians inside, a building where the old order is clashing with more than 60 new faces in the legislature, and where the policy battle to determine Louisiana’s future is only beginning.
The water is high. But here, as it is throughout the state, Jindal’s triune message is one that speaks to the stakes at hand, and his commitment to win. The wall can hold. It must hold. It will hold.
Jindal’s team will make sure it does. The policy staff would be a crack outfit for a President of the United States, and they need to be to navigate the odd peculiarities of Louisiana law – trust me, it’s charming until you actually have to wrestle with it. The Cabinet is filled with amazingly litany of capable managers and policy innovators. Whip-smart Commissioner of Administration Angèle Davis has a golden touch – she could make the Oakland Raiders a contender. Labor Secretary Tim Barfield is the former president of The Shaw Group. Secretary of Health and Hospitals Alan Levine, who worked for years in Florida for Gov. Jeb Bush and in the private sector, is maybe the only person in America who knows more about health policy than Jindal himself.
Mark Cooper, who heads up the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, is perhaps the best example of the kind of amazing pull Jindal has: an LSU grad who left the state (like so many other bright young men and women) and who most recently ran the Los Angeles County Fire Department, managing a billion dollar budget, contacted Jindal’s transition team after reading a Wall Street Journal article titled “Bayou Bobby: A new governor offers hope for disaffected Louisiana expats.” Like so many others, he’ll tell you he came back to help his state, recognizing the unique opportunity for renewal and change.
That change won’t come easily, despite Jindal’s early policy successes. His special sessions were stunning achievements, yes, and speak to the momentum he carries with him. Jindal’s ethics reforms have made fundamental changes already in the way the legislature does business, and the tax policies have already made Louisiana a model for how state government should lift restrictions and let the free market work. But his plan to respond to New Orleans’ educational crisis and his policy goals for the coming year will likely make him public enemy number one for the teacher unions, organizations for whom competition and inner city scholarships are viewed as threats. The next wins will be harder fought, and there should be blood on the floor when it’s all done.
There’s no question that the Baton Rouge media gaggle is loaded for bear. Confused about how to cover a governor who is so authentic, so free of scandal, and so open about his philosophy of government and policy views, they’re determined to give him as short a grace period as possible. And when the next storm comes – and it is not a question of if, it is a question of when – no one should trust that the stories they and national journalists write about the next storm will be fair or balanced. If they see any opportunity to stop a rising star, the face of a new brand of conservative, someone who has accomplished more meaningful reform in a few weeks in the governor’s mansion than Barack Obama has accomplished in his entire career, there’s no doubt they will try.
So many governors in Louisiana history have started out strong, and yet so few have been reelected. They will do their best to stack the odds against him, because that is what they do.
Yet if those close to Jindal are cognizant of that, it quite honestly isn’t part of his focus. His love for his job is evident; you can end all that Veep talk folks, ain’t gonna happen. His state is the only thing on his mind. Well, maybe one or two other things – the future of conservatism, for one.
The simple measure of the movement, for Jindal, as he repeats in his soft-spoken but absolutely serious voice, is whether as conservatives, we actually have confidence in our ideas – confidence enough to put them to the test.
When crises arise, so often the modern Beltway conservative response is to run from our principles – to offer a plan that’s just about throwing taxpayer money at a problem or a poorly run agency, and just do it slightly cheaper than the liberals do. It’s the ideology of the limp wrist: a response to challenge that throws fiscal responsibility out of the window; that says there is no point where policy compromise is worse than principled defeat; that says giving parents the freedom to determine where their child goes to school is a good idea in theory, but let’s not rock the boat on this one.
If the conservative movement that won the Cold War, passed welfare reform, and revitalized the American economy in the 20th Century is going to serve this country well in the 21st, they must learn to have the courage to do what’s right. We advocate for policy change not just because it’s principled, but we believe that it works better for the American people – that most conservative solutions fundamentally understand human nature in a way that liberal ones do not. And that when we are confronted by a candidate like Obama, whose sheen of HopeChange disguises a candidate who has no daylight on policy between himself and Ted Kennedy, we can explain why those policy differences matter.
Jindal himself does not need to learn the definition of principled leadership. The skill comes naturally to him. He knows he is building a great thing, but his perfectionist spirit means he is not yet mindful of the greatness of this accomplishment.
But even if he doesn’t, the families of Louisiana already understand – the wind has changed. They can feel it, a larger change than any one piece of legislation or one slate of policy fixes could achieve. This is something more fundamental. For once, the word “possibility” is said with real optimism – and by people who once, unlike the well-heeled crowds of suburbanites at YesWeCan rallies, had no hope at all for the future.
The odds are still poor – the waters are high, yes – but the wall will hold this time. They have a Governor who will be sure of it.
As a young LSU grad told me as we looked out over the Mississippi, the ripples glistening in the amber light of sunset: “If anyone can do it, he can.”
The water is high. But the new Louisiana is coming. Bobby Jindal is building it.