This is a chapter originally written for my upcoming memoir, Backrooms and Bayous: My Life In Louisiana Politics. It didn’t make the cut, but I am sharing it here. -Bob
You Do Have Tenure, Don’t You?
AT FIRST, I had some hopes for Bobby Jindal, who easily won the 2007 governor’s race. I did not know him well. When he moved to Washington to work as director of the national Medicare reform commission that Breaux co-chaired with Republican Representative Bill Thomas of California, I was in Baton Rouge working as Breaux’s Louisiana press secretary.
Breaux did not hire Jindal for the job. As co-chair, Thomas somehow seized that right and gave Jindal the position. Because Jindal and Breaux were from Louisiana, people assumed it was Breaux’s hire. From the beginning, Breaux and those around him didn’t fully trust Jindal. “He’s the only staffer I ever had who brought his own press secretary,” Breaux often quipped, referring to the fact that Jindal, who had been Louisiana’s secretary of Health and Hospitals, brought his former press secretary to Washington to play the same role on the Medicare commission. Still, Jindal was well known to be a policy wonk. I assumed I would dislike what he did, but at least he would be aggressive and creative about policy. That turned out to be a massive misjudgment.
Anyone paying attention to Jindal’s first words as governor, in his inaugural address in January 2008, would have heard the hints of how awful and self-serving he would be. With Blanco seated behind him, Jindal told the crowd at the state Capitol that day:
You’ve often heard me say, we don’t live in a poor state; we’ve had a state with poor leadership; that we do not have a state stuck in the past, but leaders who were unconcerned with the future. If we are honest with ourselves, we can all agree that too many of those stereotypes rang true. In our past, too many of our politicians looked out for themselves. Too many arms of state and local government did not get results. And the world took note. Those stereotypes cost us credibility. They cost us investment. They cost us jobs. Let us all resolve today—Democrats and Republicans, North Louisiana and South, leaders of all—all races and all religions, elected and unelected—let us all resolve that era ends today.
His words about Blanco, who gave her all to the state she loved, were crude and graceless. In the years to come, most of the state’s residents would come to see clearly Jindal’s slavish devotion to the wealthy at the expense of the poor and the sick, whom he seemed to disdain. Many of them would turn against him as he neglected the state’s business in pursuit of higher office. And they would recognize, as one of the many consequences of that neglect, a state budget left in shambles when he left office eight years later. Jindal’s administration did not end the era of “poor leadership,” as he called it in his inaugural speech. Instead, he set a new, low standard for how poorly a governor could run Louisiana government. By the time Jindal would slink away into oblivion in January 2015, his statewide job approval rating would be a miserable, well-deserved 34 percent.
Jindal showed his true colors almost immediately. Instead of trying to enact innovative policy, he and his staff were outplayed by conservative legislators who wanted to repeal the income tax provisions of a statewide constitution tax reform initiative. Known as “the Stelly Plan,” the tax reform measure was named after its chief proponent, state Representative Vic Stelly. The Lake Charles Republican had proposed making the tax code fairer and more progressive by cutting sales taxes while increasing income taxes on upper-income workers. Voters approved his plan in a statewide vote in 2002.
In her last legislative session, Blanco agreed with Stelly Plan opponents who wanted to repeal a portion of the reforms, which meant cutting income taxes for about twenty percent of taxpayers. It cost the state about $150 million in revenue. I was no longer on staff when it happened, so I never understood why she allowed lawmakers to have their bill, although maybe she thought the state budget, still flush with post-Katina money, could absorb the revenue reduction. After all, despite the Stelly Plan tax cuts, Blanco had left Jindal with an $865 million surplus. But their minor success with Blanco only whetted Republicans’ appetite to repeal completely the progressive taxes when Jindal took office. Jindal and his staffers knew a full repeal would balloon the state’s revenue shortfall to more than $800 million a year, but they supported it anyway.
I have a hard time believing Jindal and his staff wanted to start his term as governor with a huge budget shortfall. Perhaps they were true believers in supply-side economics—the now-discredited belief that cutting taxes will increase revenue—but I suspect they knew better. A better politician would have diluted the bill or kill it, quietly, in committee. A more principled politician would have worked to stop it once it passed the committee. Jindal, unfortunately, was neither. Instead of taking care of his state, he worried about his political future. No doubt he was already plotting to run for national office. He could not oppose a tax cut, even one that would harm so many people in his state. In the Republican Party, then and now, nothing is worse than taxes. So, Jindal took the coward’s way out. He not only agreed to the tax cuts; he got behind them and took credit for them when they passed.
About the time the tax cuts took effect, the national economy slowed down. By the fall of 2008, the nation had plunged into a deep recession. A few months earlier, it may have seemed to some that Louisiana government could afford to relinquish that revenue. Now, it was clear a fiscal disaster was looming. The federal government would keep the state afloat for two years with stimulus money the new president, Barack Obama, persuaded Congress to spend. But, when that money ran out, the state’s public hospitals and universities would be in deep trouble.
Instead of working to reverse the cuts or find other ways to help higher education, Jindal and his staff attacked the state’s universities as wasteful. “Budget cuts may result in fewer sabbaticals and may force professors to actually spent more time in the classrooms teaching and interacting with students,” Jindal said in a statement in October 2010, “but that is a good thing.” He added, “We don’t have time in Louisiana for whining.” Compounding the damage, Jindal pushed schools to eliminate degree programs. He and his staff altered the funding formulas to force colleges into complex and self-defeating “reforms” to get their money. They suggested that faculty members who wanted a one-semester sabbatical to finish a book or conduct research were lazy. They slashed funding for TOPS, the state’s generous tuition assistance program. They refused to fully fund Go Grants, a program Blanco had created to help low-income students afford college.
Meanwhile, Jindal refused to take federal money the state had offered for a light rail connection between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. And he rejected another $80 million to expand rural broadband access. And, worst and most cruel, he rejected the federal money to expand Medicaid and give lifesaving health care to about 400,000 Louisiana residents. Most of these people were what policymakers call “the working poor,” those who earned just enough to make them ineligible for the regular Medicaid program. Many of them worked more than one job to feed and house their families. They are the backbone of our country and Jindal and his crowd happily vilified them as shiftless moochers.
During Jindal’s first term, I grew increasingly alarmed about the direction of the state, especially over the damage Jindal was inflicting on education and health care. People were suffering and young people were being forced to forgo a college education, all because Jindal needed to burnish his fiscal conservative credentials to audition as running mate to whomever won the Republican presidential nomination in 2012.
Since my early days as a journalist and through my years speaking on behalf of Russell Long, John Breaux, Bennett Johnston, and Kathleen Blanco, I had rarely spoken in public to share my own opinions about a political issue. I had written a few op-eds over years, including the one about the Vietnam War in the New York Times. I had also published a lengthy piece in the Times about the lessons from Vietnam that Bush administration leaders should apply to the war in Iraq. When Russell Long died in 2003, I wrote several op-eds in tribute to him. And I’d written a few book reviews for the Times and other national publications. But, mostly, I had kept my political opinions—especially about Louisiana politics—to myself. That was the way it was supposed to be. I couldn’t work effectively for Breaux or Blanco if I was speaking for myself while also trying to speak for them. That would have created confusion. I was rarely tempted to do anything but explain my bosses’ positions to the press.
Now that I was at LSU, I no longer spoke for anyone but myself. I knew my conduct and public pronouncements might reflect on my employer, but if I made it clear I was speaking for myself, I was free to say what I wanted. But I knew my dean, Jack Hamilton, disapproved of faculty members who were too outspoken on Louisiana politics. His predisposition was for the Manship School to do and say nothing that might antagonize state leaders, especially the governor. At first, that way of doing things made sense to me. That was how I had operated, too, although my work was more in the public eye than Jack’s. Still, I understood and had internalized the maxim, “To get along, go along.”
When Breaux started thinking about running for governor in 2007, Jack offered me a leave of absence to work on his campaign. That interested me for a few days, but I knew my campaign days were over. I had buried my campaign demons for good. I had finally found my home in academia. I was not about to plunge back into partisan politics. I dreaded telling Breaux I could not work for him.
That did not mean I wouldn’t speak out to defend Breaux and poke Jindal when I could. So, I did a few television interviews in which I speculated that Breaux’s potential candidacy would spell big trouble for Jindal’s presumed unimpeded march to the Governor’s Mansion. When a local business leader—someone the school was trying to court for a large contribution to the Manship School—saw my remarks, he sent Jack a link to my interview that said, “Not good.” The potential donor was one of Jindal’s most prominent supporters and would eventually serve on the LSU Board of Supervisors. I decided maybe I had gone too far in my criticism of Jindal. I didn’t fully understand the limits of academic freedom. I was also without tenure and serving a two-year appointment. So, I went back to teaching and working on my next book.
As the damage from Jindal’s budget cuts got deeper and LSU and other schools suffered in various ways—faculty were leaving, classes were cancelled, degree programs scrapped—I found it harder to hold my tongue. What most frustrated me was that local lawmakers and business leaders in Baton Rouge, who should have rushed to LSU’s aid, were silent.
In October 2010 one lonely state lawmaker came to LSU’s campus to meet with students about Jindal’s onerous budget cuts, a relatively unknown Democrat from Amite, about forty-five minutes east of Baton Rouge. He was Representative John Bel Edwards, then the chair of the House Democratic Caucus. When I heard the news about Edwards coming to campus, I shot an email to a friend in the provost’s office. “I’m surprised that some other member of the local delegation didn’t think of this first,” I wrote. Jindal’s cuts to LSU would not be reversed until more than five years later, when that previously unknown legislator would become Louisiana’s fifty-sixth governor.
In March 2009, I finally spoke out, writing an op-ed in the New Orleans Times-Picayune that argued Jindal’s higher education cuts were hurting Louisiana. I noted that another young Louisiana governor had once seized upon national economic hard times to reinvest in higher education. “From 1930 (the year after the stock market crash) to 1935,” I wrote, “[Huey] Long almost tripled LSU’s operating budget and increased the school’s faculty by more than 65 percent.”
I quoted Long: “You’ve got to dare a bit.” Then, I pointed out that Jindal was taking the state in a different direction. “Instead of seizing the opportunity to consolidate and build upon the recent, impressive progress in higher education—LSU has finally earned top-tier ranking—Jindal proposes cuts that will turn back the clock, eliminate programs, increase class size and require LSU and other schools to lay off faculty and possibly send others looking for jobs in states that still value higher education,” I wrote. “In other words, at a time when the state needs visionary, proactive leadership, we get instead a proposal that will arrest and retard much of the progress made in the past decade.”
The budget cuts to higher education, health care, and other critical areas of state government kept coming. Responding to criticism that he was cutting too much, and hurt the poor and the sick people in the process, Jindal said, blithely, “We’re going to have to do more with less.” To Jindal, this was just cutting the size of government. In fact, when he privatized most of the state’s charity hospitals—turning them over to private entities to manage—he claimed the doctors, nurses, and orderlies at these hospitals were “government jobs” he had eliminated. But the state still paid most of those employees, just through the private companies that employed them.
Jindal and his staff seemed not to care that their cuts were hurting people by ruining lives and crushing hopes. Everything he and his staff did seemed aimed at getting Bobby on a national ticket. At first, he had hoped Senator John McCain might make him his running mate in 2008, but that went nowhere. McCain picked Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. So, he turned to catching the eye of whomever the GOP nominated in 2012.
That failed, too, when Mitt Romney chose future House Speaker Paul Ryan. Instead of taking this as a sign he should redouble his efforts to focus on Louisiana’s problems, Jindal set his sights on running for president in his own right in 2016. Despite having few real accomplishments—other than devastating higher education and health care, wounding elementary and secondary education, and exploding the state’s budget shortfall—the sycophants around Jindal persuaded him he was presidential timber. He would continue ignoring his day job and spend even more time away in Iowa and New Hampshire.
In January 2010, I wrote another op-ed for the Times-Picayune, questioning Jindal’s stubborn refusal to tap the state’s rainy-day fund to avoid the steep cuts he was forcing on higher education and the state’s charity hospitals. “A cynic might conclude that Jindal cares more about creating a reputation for parsimony and, thereby, sustain his presidential ambitions,” I wrote. “Whatever the reason, the fact is that Jindal now presides over a fiscal Hurricane Katrina. He is slowly destroying the state’s higher education and health care systems and, with them, the chance of a better future for thousands of Louisiana’s citizens. Sadly, for college students, the sick and the elderly, the consequences of Jindal’s neglect and mismanagement may ultimately inflict longer-lasting damage to Louisiana than the storm that destroyed the political career of his predecessor.”
I gave a few media interviews about Jindal in the years after I wrote those op-eds in 2009 and early 2010, but mostly I kept my head down, working behind the scenes to undermine his cuts to higher education, as well has highlight his far-flung travels to places like Iowa and New Hampshire, where he appeared to be laying the groundwork for a presidential run.
For months, LSU student journalists and student activists had tried to arrange a meeting with Jindal to question him about his higher education cuts. He refused to meet them. So, I drafted a letter to the editor and, working through one of my students, got it to the LSU student body president. The idea: communicate with (and embarrass) Jindal by sending it to a newspaper in New Hampshire. Here is his letter, which ran in the Keane, New Hampshire, Sentinel in October 2010:
Our governor, Bobby Jindal, is spending more time in your state than the one he was elected to represent. I read almost daily about his trips to other states, which makes me believe that he is more interested in running for president than running the State of Louisiana.
As part of a group of students elected to serve the student body at Louisiana State University, we’ve tried to meet with him to ask why he’s imposing devastating budget cuts that will result in the firing of one-third of the school’s faculty and reduce enrollment by 8,000. Jindal did send his Chief of Staff, but he left one important question unanswered. We want to know why he’s not devoting all his time to the future of his state and its young people.
So, I appreciate this opportunity to communicate with our governor, who may be more likely to read your paper than ours: Governor Jindal, Louisiana higher education is about to be devastated. It will take a generation for our universities to recover. On behalf of the students whose hopes for a brighter future will soon be crushed, I beg you to return to Louisiana and fix your state’s serious problems. You’ve neglected your constituents long enough. And if I may be so bold to offer some political advice: you’ll have a much better chance of becoming president if you save, instead of destroying, Louisiana’s universities.
I hoped someone credible might emerge to challenge and beat Jindal for reelection. That never happened. When Jindal won again in 2011, I knew I had to start speaking out. It wasn’t only Jindal’s reckless and destructive governance of Louisiana, but the near-total neglect of his duties while he preened for the national press that pulled me off the sidelines.
By 2012, I was ready to speak and write about Jindal’s maladministration.
AT FIRST, I began recording commentaries for the local NPR station, but every week’s commentary prompted a frustrating negotiation with the news director over my words. She tried to tone them down or rewrite everything I submitted. After about a month, I yielded to the frustration and stopped recording them. I didn’t have a large following on Twitter in those days, but some in the state press corps paid attention to what I said and amplified my criticisms of Jindal. I started making myself available for more interviews. The more I spoke out, the more I grew confident that I had something useful to say about the damage Jindal was doing. And, it seemed, people were interested in what I had to say.
In the spring of 2012, I created a blog in which shared my thoughts about state and national politics. I called it “Something Like the Truth.” By that, I explained, none of us has the full truth about anything; we sometimes come close to a full understanding of it. It was a paraphrase of something I had heard Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein say—good journalism is “the best obtainable version of the truth.” Or, as I explained it in my blog in 2015: “This is what I believe to be true. We may disagree. You may, in fact, be correct and I may be wrong. What is truth, anyway? Perhaps the best we can do is wrestle with whatever facts we have available and hope that they sometimes are enough to persuade us to relinquish some of our presuppositions and challenge our long-held biases or prejudices. . . . The best any of us can do, I believe, when we are arguing about politics, faith or life is to arrive at something like the truth.” While I hoped to attract a large audience, I would have been satisfied if the state’s political reporters and opinion writers were my only readers. If I did nothing beyond influence a dozen reporters, that would be enough.
What I soon learned was people across the state were fed up with Jindal and eager for someone to take him on in the press. Before I started, there were a few such critics. Clancy DuBos of Gambit, columnists James Gill, Jarvis DeBerry, and Stephanie Grace of the Times-Picayune, and Mark Ballard, the Advocate’s Capitol Bureau chief. They all wrote forceful columns that were critical of Jindal.
Some of Jindal’s fiercest critics were online, including Jeff Crouere, former executive director of the state’s Republican Party, who was offended by Jindal’s neglect of his job and had called on him to resign in a column in 2010. Others included Dayne Sherman, a professor at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, who wrote a popular blog in which he criticized Jindal. So did journalist Tom Aswell, Shreveport activist Elliott Stonecipher, and former state budget director C.B. Forgotston. In those early days of Louisiana blogging, I communicated with Tom, C.B., Elliott, and Dayne almost daily about our mutual dissent. Their forceful and eloquent criticisms heartened me.
The response to my blog was immediate and enthusiastic. Within a few months, thousands of people were reading each commentary. Someone would read what I wrote about Jindal and share it with friends on Facebook or Twitter and it would go viral. In one of my first posts, I raged about the pressure Jindal and his staff had put on LSU President Williams Jenkins to fire Fred Cerise, Blanco’s former Health secretary who ran the LSU hospital system and was resisting Jindal’s efforts to dismantle the state’s public hospitals. I wrote: “If you doubt that Jenkins and the Board were following direct orders from the Governor’s Office to fire Cerise, consider this statement issued by Jindal’s press secretary, ‘That’s a decision for the board and the LSU System president. With the changing environment in health care today, LSU’s health system needs a leader who can implement reforms that deliver services more efficiently.’ Translation, ‘We don’t want our fingerprints on this, but Bobby’s happy that Cerise is gone, because the good doctor wasn’t willing to cheerfully carry out our draconian plans to lay waste to health care for the poor.’”
In September 2012, when LSU announced it would transfer $36 million over the next five years from the Athletic Department to offset some of the draconian budget cuts imposed by Jindal and state legislators, I wrote:
What does it say about our priorities when the football team is better off than its university? Sure, this is wonderful for LSU students. The school survives, barely. But what about all the college students in Louisiana who attend schools without profitable football programs? Their budgets have also been slashed. (Jindal has cut funding to higher education by almost half a billion dollars.) Classes cancelled, faculty laid off, maintenance postponed. Where do they turn for help?
While we celebrate LSU’s good fortune, let’s at least take a moment to consider the tens of thousands of students—and future students—across the state who deserve a decent education far more than they need a winning football team. If we’ve reached a point where the only way our universities survive is on the success of our football programs, what do we really have to brag about? As much as I love LSU football, shouldn’t our state’s flagship university be a great school with a football team—and not the other way around?
I wasn’t just going after Jindal. Like many faculty members and staff at LSU, I was alarmed at how passive and compliant the LSU Board of Supervisors had about Jindal’s attacks on higher education, in general, and LSU, in particular. In the summer of 2013, after the LSU Board hired a new president after a secretive and illegal search, I wrote:
So, LSU finally has a new president, but has it lost its soul? I’m sure President King Alexander is a nice man and a decent leader—although some who know him well would strongly disagree.
But this isn’t about just King Alexander. It’s about a university community that has allowed a governor to devastate its budget, diminish its reputation and damage its national ranking. It’s about a governor who installed a group of “leaders”—the LSU Board of Supervisors—whose actions demonstrate that they care not a whit about the university, its students, faculty and staff.
It’s about the LSU Alumni Association and other groups supporting the university who have stood by silently—holding their crawfish boils and pep rallies for the football team—while their “beloved” university is slowly being destroyed. . . .
Where is the outrage, the indignation, over what has happened to LSU since Jindal came to power? You won’t find it on LSU’s campus. What you will find is either apathy or resignation. You’d think the employees of an institution who have suffered without pay increases for almost five years might rouse themselves to begin some kind of protest. You’d also think that students—their courses cancelled, their buildings crumbling, their faculty leaving, their tuition rising—would march on the Capitol in protest. But you’d be wrong. We’ve lost our soul. Or at least it’s been stolen.
Not long thereafter, LSU lost a lawsuit demanding the records from the secret president’s search. A Baton Rouge state judge not only ordered the school to cough up the records—LSU officials had created few actual records about the off-the-books search—she fined the school $140,000. The next day, I wrote:
It seems clear that the members of the LSU Board no longer have the credibility to continue serving. They are a disgrace to the university and the state. They should resign their offices. And if they won’t resign, Jindal should demand their resignations. They won’t, of course, and neither will Jindal. They’ll all continue their misrule of the university long after this case is closed, and any fines are paid from the public’s coffers. Even after the contempt ruling is vacated, this LSU Board of Supervisors will remain in contempt of the public.
As early as 2010, my dissent had attracted wide attention and was worrying some of my friends. “Friend to friend,” a prominent Baton Rouge journalist wrote in an email to me in June 2010, “don’t you worry sometimes that Bobby the Boss might compromise your position with LSU?”
“I appreciate the concern,” I replied, “and I suppose anything’s possible. But, I do have tenure, so I’m fairly well protected. More than anything, however, I think I’m pretty small fish. He’s running for president and I’m just piddling around with Facebook and my 400 friends.”
My old friend Charlie Cook, the veteran Washington political journalist, had noticed my escalating attacks on Jindal as early as March of 2010, when he spoke to the annual meeting of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana (PAR). Charlie sat in on a session before his luncheon speech at which I spoke alongside former Governor Buddy Roemer. I alternated between praising Roemer and attacking Jindal. “I’d like to know who starts Bob Mann’s car in the morning,” Charlie said to chuckles, as he began his luncheon remarks.
Around that time, Charlie cautioned me, “Your friends are very worried about you. Be careful.” I thought, “Holy smokes! He’s one of the smartest and shrewdest political observers out there. Maybe I should be worried.” Two other good friends—Terry Ryder, a former colleague from Blanco’s office, and Jim Richardson, the LSU economist and then-chair of the state’s Revenue Estimating Conference—told me at breakfast one morning they were concerned about me. One friend even told me he had heard Jindal’s people were working to dig up something to discredit me. The message from all these friends and more was, “Watch your back.”
One night in October 2012, I went to dinner with Kathleen Blanco and Coach at the Chimes, a popular restaurant near the north gates of LSU. She had been reading my blog posts and seeing my quotes in the press. “You have tenure, don’t you?” she asked. I assured her I did. She was still worried for me and reviewed all the ways that a governor could make life miserable for a faculty member.
I had worried a little when friends began questioning my dissent, but when I saw the look of concern on Blanco’s face, I went home that night a lot more fretful about my future. I know this sounds ridiculous, but I became so fearful Jindal or one of his allies might have someone break into my office and plant something damaging or embarrassing on my computer that I asked our systems manager to remove my desktop computer. I replaced it with a Macbook Air I took home every night. It wasn’t until 2018 I relaxed enough to reinstall a desktop computer in my faculty office. Even today, out of habit, I almost never use it.
That December, Tyler Bridges, then writing for The Lens of New Orleans, began researching a story about my dissent. At first, he had been just one of several friends concerned about me. Eventually, he began to wonder if what I was doing, and the potential risk to my career, was worth a story. “Over the past year,” Tyler wrote, “Gov. Bobby Jindal has gained a reputation in Baton Rouge for punishing state employees and state legislators who get in his way or might sully his image, as he spends more and more time trying to burnish his national reputation. Several legislators and top state officials told The Lens they could not be quoted criticizing the governor for fear of reprisal.” In the piece, Tyler masterfully recounted many ways Jindal and his staff had exacted retribution on his critics, including firing LSU President John Lombardi and hospitals chief Fred Cerise.
For the story, Tyler interviewed Blanco, whose response to a question about my dissent caused me some consternation. “You’re testing the tenure laws,” she said of me. “How much confidence do you have?” Tyler concluded his story thus: “But Mann believes that the tenure law protects him, and he doesn’t plan on holding his fire. ‘In for a dime, in for a dollar,’ he said, surrounded by photos of him with big-shot Democrats, including Bill Clinton and Al Gore. ‘I’ve already given them enough reason to fire me, if they’re going to come after me. Stopping being critical of Bobby Jindal is not going to cause them to give me an award. If there’s to be retribution, my fate has been sealed.’”
I believed that. If Jindal and his allies were going to find a way to fire me, I had already given them plenty of motivation. There was really no reason to stop or slow down. Did I think my dissent would get me fired? Even in my worst moments of self-doubt, I did not worry much that LSU would sack me for speaking out. I reminded myself that tenure provided a level of protection not afforded an assistant professor, instructor, or staff member. Even under pressure from Jindal, I knew LSU would need evidence of some gross misconduct to get rid of me. If my only transgression was outspokenness, I was safe.
But I wasn’t always so confident about that. God bless Cindy. Despite the fact we had two young children to feed and clothe, she never asked me to tone it down. What Jindal was doing outraged her, too. But if she had told me to trim my sails, I’m ashamed to say I probably would have. The truth is I was “brave” because I had tenure. Without it, I’m not sure I would have had the confidence to take my dissent that far. One prominent faculty colleague even accused me of abusing my tenure. “You’re hiding behind it,” he said. But what are tenure and academic freedom good for if not giving faculty members, like me, the freedom to speak out on important issues? I always thought because I had tenure, I had an obligation to speak for those non-tenured faculty and staff members who wanted to protest, but couldn’t for fear of retribution.
As much as I had opposed LSU President F. King Alexander’s hiring, he said nothing publicly even slightly critical of me. In fact, he spoke up in my defense more than once. In September 2015, I went with my dean, Jerry Ceppos, to hear Alexander speak at the Baton Rouge Press Club. When the time came for questions, a club member asked, “Is it time to think about abolishing tenure?” Alexander responded that tenure was useful and necessary for various reasons, mainly because it afforded faculty members academic freedom. And then he elaborated on why academic freedom was so important. About two hours later, my phone rang. It was King. “What did you think about my speech?” he asked. I told him it had been excellent. “Did you like what I said about academic freedom?” he asked. I said I did. “Good, because I had you in mind when I said that.”
I HAD BEEN a registered Democrat since the mid-1980s. I had voted for every Democrat who ran for president since Michael Dukakis. I had attended four Democratic National conventions. I had worked for Democratic elected officials in Louisiana for twenty years. I served several stints as communications director for the Louisiana Democratic Party. I was a Democrat through and through. That all ended in the summer of 2014, when former Governor Edwin Edwards, then eighty-seven years old, launched a vanity campaign for the US House. Running to succeed Congressman Bill Cassidy, who was challenging Mary Landrieu for the US Senate, Edwards knew he could not win one of the most conservative districts in the country. Edwards and his young, third wife had briefly starred in a lackluster reality TV show. When that flopped, the former governor needed another vehicle to satisfy his ego and remain in the spotlight. Ever the showman, he knew the congressional campaign of a former governor just a few years out of prison would attract national and international attention. And it did. It also threatened to make Louisiana a laughing stock, especially if Edwards made the runoff.
It distressed me that so many Democrats, including some of my friends, thought Edwards’s campaign was funny. And I wrote several strongly worded blog posts and columns about it that spring and summer. In March 2014, I wrote:
Pity the poor Louisiana Democrat starved for effective and visionary leadership. He’ll do almost anything, support almost anyone, who can provide him even the slightest bit of nourishment for his starved political soul. Who could blame him?
He’s like the desperate hungry who lined up on Chicago’s streets in the early 1930s to dine at Al Capone’s soup kitchens. Those hungry masses didn’t much care about the reputation or character of the individual who paid for their meal. Their stomachs were aching, and Capone offered them a little bread and some soup.
Capone, however, didn’t really care about the poor; he merely used them to rehabilitate his tarnished reputation. . . . Capone’s public relations stunt helped him among the people, but it didn’t keep him out of prison. Federal prosecutors indicted him for tax evasion in 1931. By May of 1932, he was living in a federal prison in Atlanta.
In the same way that Chicago’s hungry were willing to overlook Capone’s reputation for criminality as they fed their growling stomachs with his food, so do some desperate Louisiana Democrats overlook the high crimes and misdemeanors of former U.S. Bureau of Prisons convict #03128-095 — also known as former Gov. Edwin Edwards.
It’s been so long since these Democrats experienced the joy of a charismatic leader, they are rushing to his political soup kitchen to eagerly stuff themselves with the warmed-over gruel that he plops onto their plate. Too late, however, will they discover that what Edwards serves them is neither nutritious nor satisfying. In fact, it is rotten food, tainted with corruption and laced with cynicism and defeat.
I confessed that, like some Democrats, I had once found Edwards and his charms seductive:
As the political reporter for a north Louisiana newspaper that had endorsed him over Treen, I quickly became one of Edwards’ favorite journalists. He gave me extraordinary access to him and his family members, including his wife and his aged mother. He returned my phone calls almost immediately. He welcomed me into his home. He flattered me, courted me, and praised my stories.
He seduced me. And I blinded myself to the Shakespearean proportions of his corruption and his profound moral failings. I was young and overwhelmed by the power of a former and future governor who granted me access and showered me with attention.
And although I still voted for Treen, his attention undoubtedly influenced what I wrote about him. So, when I comment on the fact that Edwards is again in the process of seducing Louisiana voters—as a candidate for Congress from Louisiana’s 6th congressional district—believe me, I know what I’m talking about. I don’t claim to know the man as well as some, but I know him well.
And now, at 55, and with the more-jaded outlook of someone who spent 20-plus years working in the political world, I am much less beguiled by Edwards and his ilk. I hope I’m much more alert to the deceptive shallowness, the empty promises and the cynical appeals directed at people for whom politicians like Edwards have not the slightest concern or compassion. . . .
The bottom line is this: I’d love to see a Democrat capture this seat. But Edwin Edwards isn’t the one to do it. All he can do in the process of losing is embarrass us, as he has been doing since the early 1970s.
I’m tired of shuffling through his crummy soup kitchen and eating his rotten, corrupt food. If that’s what it takes to be a Democrat in Louisiana’s 6th congressional district these days, then I’ll change parties.
A few days later, Edwards sent me an email: “Me [sic] bad—thought we were at least friendly if not friends. Forgive me for that. I may have made another mistake but thought also you were supportive of Mary [Landrieu]. If that is incorrect then just disregard, however if you have any interest in her let me know.” Edwards’s mention of Landrieu was a reference to the belief by some that his presence in the race might drive up black turnout for her in the primary and, if he made it, in the runoff. This struck me as hilarious—the idea Edwards cared anything about helping Landrieu, who had always disdained him. I replied to Edwards:
Friends tell each other the truth, so here goes: I do not believe you can win this race. This is not a district that any Democrat can win, least of all someone with your history. Guilty or innocent, it doesn’t matter to most people in this district and it certainly doesn’t matter to the national press, which will use your candidacy to ridicule us. It all turns it all into a circus, which I find so distasteful and unnecessary. Louisiana has a serious image problem. Governor Jindal’s misrule has added to it greatly. But your presence in this race only adds to it and makes it worse. It makes our state a laughingstock. I don’t know who it was who gave you advice that you should run, but I would question that person’s friendship. I don’t believe such advice serves you or the state well.
A few months later, when the Louisiana Democratic Party endorsed Edwards, who made the runoff with his Republican opponent, I changed my registration to “no party.” That fall, Edwards’s self-absorbed campaign ended when his opponent won in a landslide.
The following summer, I appeared on a panel in New Orleans with the former governor and then-state Representative John Bel Edwards (now in the middle of his campaign for Louisiana governor). Before the program, I knew I had to dispense with the awkwardness of our contretemps before we sat together on the stage. I spotted the former governor seated among friends and family at a large table. The crowded room was noisy and Edwards, hard of hearing, would probably not understand a word I spoke. “Hi, governor,” I shouted, shaking his hand. “I’m looking forward to being with you tonight.” Without missing a beat, Edwards took advantage of his inability to hear. He shot back: “That’s ok, Bob. I accept your apology.”