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“He has a million friends,” Keller says. “He stays in touch with people. His intelligence attracts people. He is sharp; he generally has interesting things to say.
“In a go along/get along world, he is distinctively different, because he is intense about his goals and his ideas. There is a contrast between his image as a technocrat and the fact that he is actually quite a warm guy….He is genuine with people. I think there is a sharp distinction between people who know him reasonably well and like him a lot, and those who don’t know him as well and see him only as the image…of 11-point plans and ideas to fix things.”
McCrery, who has supported him every step of the way, elaborated: “Bobby has the most important quality to be successful as a political candidate: He has that fire in the belly. He really wants to serve. He presents the sense that he can make things better for people by serving in public office.”
IN PERSON, THOUGH, WHAT FIRST STRIKES a visitor is less a fire than an almost irrepressible enthusiasm. Any question is answered with a torrent of words, rapid fire — almost frustratingly so for an interviewer who wants to discuss a long list of topics. But what emerges is so Chevrolet-and-applie-pie-ish as to seem almost hokey, except that Jindal’s sincerity is so palpable as to make the conversation leave hokey behind and at least border on the inspirational.
For example: How did he get into discussing health care with McCrery?
“I was doing an honors thesis at the time on transmembranes, on the stochiometry of energy lost in the cellular membrane. We were looking in brain stem cells, we were looking in the fluid there to see if the sodium potassium worked there the same way as it did in the rest of the body….”
Not until several minutes later can the interviewer get to ask how Jindal moved from medicine to an interest in government.
“You have to understand that my parents came to Louisiana and my mom was a student at LSU when she had me…and the first seven years of my life we lived in student housing. But what we learned at home was two lessons, one the importance of getting a good education and working hard, that if you did that there was no limit to what you could accomplish in America, and secondly day after day my dad was drilling into my head how lucky we were to have the opportunities around us. Not everybody in the world had the freedoms that we did…so when it came to politics and public policy I was very much attracted by the conservative philosophy that says let’s not have the government smother the individual in this, let’s not micromanage, let’s not excessively tax, let’s not confiscate people’s private property rights, let’s not in other words create disincentives when the best thing that we can do for people is give them the opportunity to work and if you do that you give them a tremendous gift….”
And on goes the gusher of words, through the explanation of how his medical studies convinced him that bureaucrats shouldn’t run health care, through the explanation that in the Louisiana of flamboyantly corrupt Democratic Gov. Edwin Edwards it was the Republican Party that represented reform and transparency of government — and how, at the national level, he was inspired by the leadership, principles, and optimism of Ronald Reagan. Jindal also pays homage to McCrery, too, as an excellent example of conviction and principle… and, well, by the time that is finished, the interviewer is almost afraid to ask about his intellectual influences (Aristotle, Pliny, Augustine, Cardinal John Henry Newman). Almost, but not quite, because despite the lack of concision, Jindal is so engaging and pleasant and, yes, interesting throughout.
BUT THE REAL KEY TO JINDAL is not the energy of his conversation, but the energy and effectiveness of his performance. What made him a virtual folk hero in Louisiana was Jindal’s response to Hurricane Katrina, from which crisis he was probably the only elected official to emerge with his reputation actually enhanced. By widespread agreement, Jindal and his staff are credited with responding to the storm in a superb manner, by organizing or facilitating aid of all sorts, by being accessible, by cutting through red tape (or just ignoring it) with alacrity and skill.
Characteristically, Jindal deflects much of the credit. “I had people in my office who lost everything they owned and their first reaction was to help other people. They didn’t view themselves as victims; their immediate response was, all right, we have to get on the phone to help.”
Jindal tells of a moment at the state’s emergency response headquarters in the first several hours when nothing constructive seemed to be happening. The torrent of words comes again: “I remember looking at my chief of staff and we had the same thoughts, that there was no point in being here, it didn’t feel like enough decisions were being made, so… we got in our vehicles and we started driving throughout every point we could get to, to see what we could bring, what do they need…”
They helicoptered to devastated St. Bernard Parish and found the sheriff: “They were still rescuing people out of the water; he went through the list: We need ammunition, we need cars, we need food, we need everything… We called up people we knew at Ford Motor Company and other motor companies; we got them to donate dozens of vehicles we could use for search and rescue. There was a hospital on the north shore [of Lake Pontchartrain] that was running low on medicines and couldn’t get through the bureaucracy to get the medicines they needed so we got a guy in Michigan we knew to donate a plane and a helicopter and we got a guy in Shreveport to donate the medicines….”
Stories around Louisiana are legion about how Jindal’s staff was everywhere, helping everybody, bypassing the bureaucrats, getting the job done.
“The one thing I want to emphasize,” he said, “is the tremendous generosity of others because, while there were a lot of things we were able to facilitate, just to be clear that there were so many people [churches, non-profits, individual volunteers and donors, the Coast Guard]…. There are thousands of untold stories, of American heroes that we don’t get to hear about.”
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