March 1, 2009 in Opinion

Kathleen Parker: Let Bobby Jindal be himself

Kathleen Parker
 

I liked the old Bobby Jindal better – the one whose brain moves so fast, he’s already indexing questions his interviewers haven’t thought of yet.

What did they do with him?

The Jindal who responded to Barack Obama’s address to Congress was less the brilliant statesman than a terribly mixed metaphor – equal parts Mister Rogers, Bobby Brady and Kenneth the Page.

I know Bobby Jindal, and that guy wasn’t Bobby Jindal.

The real Jindal is the intellectual equivalent of a nuclear power plant. The real Jindal has actually read the stimulus bill and can recite its contents. The real Jindal is the sort of politician who promises ethics and education reform, and actually delivers.

Stories of Jindal’s ability to quickly assess a problem and fix it have become the stuff of legend in Louisiana, as when he was assigned the task of reforming the state’s Medicaid program and presented a workable plan the following morning. He was in his 20s.

That kind of performance, followed by his bare-hands approach to Hurricane Katrina rescue efforts as a Louisiana congressman, helped him become the nation’s youngest governor in 2007. What happened to that guy? Who snatched his body?

His staff did.

In fact, Jindal did not write his own speech, and he’s on a choke collar by some well-meaning people who helped him win the governor’s race. What worked in Louisiana in 2007 may not work on the national stage in 2016, when Jindal is most likely to run for president.

The stage-crafting was amateurish and the speech embarrassing. Jindal is smarter than the guy who criticized “volcano monitoring” as an example of wasteful spending in the stimulus bill, prompting the same cringe reflex that Sarah Palin did when she targeted silly ol’ spending – in France, no less – on fruit fly research that is, in fact, crucial to medical research.

Volcano monitoring may not be a top priority for creating jobs and stimulating credit, which is doubtless what Jindal’s speechwriter meant, but it does save lives. Jindal’s rendering of a spending eruption metaphor (get it?) merely gave Democrats yet another opportunity to question Republicans’ understanding of science and the role of government in protecting the public good.

Being the smartest person in the room can be a mixed blessing. Whether it is advantage or handicap for a brainy candidate depends on having the right people around him. At the moment, Jindal seems to be handicapped by handlers who either don’t trust their candidate or have no faith in Americans’ intelligence.

In coaching him to dim the lights a tad, they stole his spark. Dumbing down doesn’t come naturally to wunderkinds like Jindal. In trying to sound human, he sounds fake. In attempting to convey everydayness, he comes across as an extraterrestrial.

Tuesday’s speech was a setback, much like Bill Clinton’s droning 1988 Democratic convention speech, but hardly a career-ender. When Jindal apparently slipped his collar and resurfaced Wednesday morning on the “Today” show, the Rhodes Scholar Jindal (who was accepted to both Yale and Harvard medical and law schools) was back.

He dropped his “I’m-just-a-regular-guy” shtick and managed to articulate his conservative principles without putting the audience in mind of cookies and milk. Praising Obama’s objectives – while conceding that Republicans have lost fiscal credibility – he emphasized his preference for policies that help businesses create jobs rather than government programs he fears will require a taxpayer feeding tube in perpetuity.

It’s a shame that Tuesday was Jindal’s first introduction to many Americans, who won’t have a clear picture of the man. It’s also a shame he and Obama aren’t on the same team. Although they differ strenuously on social issues and the role government should play in problem-solving, they are temperamentally similar. Most important, both are pragmatists who promise to seek solutions that work, rather than be bound by ideology. It would be heartening to watch these two serious thinkers craft real bipartisan solutions to our economic troubles. One can fantasize.

At just 37, Jindal needs seasoning, but again, like Obama, he’s a quick study. Lesson No. 1: Governor, fire your staff and retool. A majority of Americans have demonstrated that they’ll vote for the smart guy, even if he talks too fast.

Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. Her e-mail address is kparker@kparker.com.


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