As Gov. Bobby Jindal announces his presidential intentions Wednesday, much emphasis will be placed on him being the smartest guy in the room.
A Rhodes scholar with an Ivy League education and an impressive résumé, Jindal’s chief argument for leading the country is that as governor, he used his administrative abilities to enact programs long part of conservative Republican bucket lists — expanding school vouchers and charter schools, privatizing the state’s charity hospitals, a wide array of economic development incentives for companies — while strictly adhering to the doctrines of the religious right, such as restricting abortion procedures and opposing special protections for gay people.
Jindal has been described by State Treasurer John Kennedy as a macro-manager, someone who sets the broad overall policy, then relies on aides to carry out the details.
Though the two Republicans elected statewide agree on little, Jindal agrees with that description. His approach is wonkish, focusing on abstract policies, on numbers and charts instead of back slaps.
It’s also a style that has attracted much criticism from legislators and other elected officials who say he is out of touch. Unlike previous governors who parked themselves on the side galleries of legislative chambers, calling lawmakers over for a quick consult, Jindal made only one or two trips per session, and then only briefly. Legislators say they rarely speak directly with Jindal.
Kennedy said he hasn’t had a substantive conversation with Jindal in eight years. When the governor needed help passing a controversial college tuition tax credit bill, however, his then chief of staff, Kyle Plotkin, asked the treasurer to call some legislators, Kennedy recalls.
And Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, a Republican who is officially in charge of the state when Jindal leaves on one of his many trips, says he’s never had the governor’s cellphone number.
Jindal, who was a health care consultant in the Washington, D.C., office of McKinsey & Co., for two years before returning to his home state of Louisiana, ties his management style to “In Search of Excellence,” a 1982 best-seller that profiled 43 companies and the management policies of their executives.
The book’s authors “practically defined innovative corporate management,” Jindal wrote in his 2010 autobiography.
“I learned the difference between working hard and working smart, that what matters is results; I learned the importance of hiring rising stars, even if you might not keep them long; I learned that personnel is policy; and I learned to avoid micromanagement,” Jindal wrote.
A dozen current and former aides, speaking on condition they not be identified, told pretty much the same story: Jindal intensely interacts with a handful of trusted aides, who in turn are delegated to go do the work.
They describe their present and former boss as intense and focused, a man of even temperament but with a relentless drive and an ability to recall conversations and data months after the fact.
Jindal gets up early to work out — the governor has told several interviewers that without distractions, he’s able to think, and the exercise gives him energy. He then reads newspapers, even from small towns, and issues instructions before breakfast. During legislative sessions and other busy times, the four to six staffers who form part of his inner circle often breakfast with him to go over the day’s expectations.
Throughout the day, as Jindal goes through a tightly organized schedule with plenty of meetings, the aides call in and report. At the end of the day, they meet again to recap.
“It was a lot of interaction,” one former aide recalls, “very much knowledge in the weeds. He wanted to ask that third and fourth and fifth follow-up question to develop a deep understanding.”
“His mind never really gets fatigued. We’d have plenty of policy discussions at 10 o’clock at night when all I want to do is put my feet up and go home,” another said.
Jindal, who famously doesn’t attend galas and dinners as usually expected of a chief executive, socializes with his close aides and their families.
His staffers, for the most part, are thirty-somethings with impressive credentials from conservative campaigns, consulting firms and think tanks. Most stay for a short time, then move on, which is OK with Jindal, whose longest stay in any one job has been his eight years as governor.
Jindal’s former staffers are all over government now. They head the offices of U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy and U.S. Rep. Ralph Abramson. One, Garret Graves, is now the congressman from the Baton Rouge-based 6th District. Another, Scott Angelle, is a Louisiana public service commissioner and is running for governor.
Back when running the state Department of Health and Hospitals as 25-year-old wunderkind, Jindal arrived first at the office, about 7 a.m., ate a sandwich at his desk and wore out the carpet between his office and his top lieutenants. As head of the University of Louisiana System, the tradition had been for the small staff to eat lunch in a conference room and chat. He’d sit down with his sandwiches and soft drink.
Back then, Jindal refined his system for handling policy initiatives: Map out the key players in a decision, identify their issues and importance; prioritize key action points, listing what’s necessary to accomplish that point along with a timeline; develop a strategy, with key talking points and detailed statistics in support of his position; then give marching orders to his trusted staffers.
He follows similar routines now.
“He gave me a lot of autonomy,” said a former aide, who did not want to be identified for fear of offending his former boss, whom he views as mentor. “He said, ‘Look, you go and make decisions based on what you think is best for the state. And for every 10 decisions you make, I may not agree with two or three of them, but I understand that when you hire people and put them in positions to make decisions, that comes with the territory.”
Jindal has distinct ideas and holds strong opinions on policy matters, but seeks his staff’s input. Certain areas are non-negotiable — staffers quickly learn what those are — but otherwise the discussions were free-ranging. But Jindal asks a lot of detailed questions, sometimes relentlessly, challenging his aides’ assertions with numbers and data.
Tim Barfield, who was Jindal’s front man on the state budget during the just-ended legislative session, says he visited with the governor several times a day.
Barfield said he usually would go through the chief of staff to request an appointment. But toward the end, when negotiations were coming to a head, Barfield said, he would just stick his head in Jindal’s office on the fourth floor of the State Capitol.
Jindal’s first four years were heavily characterized by crisis control, including hurricanes, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and flooding along the Mississippi River.
When a disaster occurred, Jindal became hands-on. He immersed himself in the minute details of finding meals, water, tarps, transportation and medical supplies, diving deep into what it takes to evacuate a million people and take care of a couple million more who are without power and services.
Alan Levine, who was secretary of the state Department of Health and Hospitals for a time under Jindal, once noted that Jindal was very engaged, regardless of how small the situations. Levine recalled that as high winds buffeted Baton Rouge during Hurricane Gustav in 2008, word arrived about generator problems and an oxygen shortage at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center on the LSU campus, where several hundred medical patients were housed. Jindal jumped into his car to investigate the problem, Levine said.
Aides recall that the only time they heard Jindal raise his voice was during Gustav, and even then it wasn’t so much yelling but more stern and sharp.
Usually, Jindal disciplines with his sarcastic humor, needling aides.
“He was a laser focus on details. If you didn’t have your details right, you better not offer up the idea or suggestion because he would find the weak link,” an aide said. “The word was out pretty quickly: Don’t bring half-baked numbers or half-baked ideas. Because he would remember them a week later and pointedly, embarrassingly, ask you why they’re not coming through.”
The aides also agree that the work he did changed the direction of the state. Voters were frustrated about government response after hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, and that became anger attached to all manners of the way in which the state has operated. One adviser suggests that public feeling may have shifted over time, leading in part to a decline in Jindal’s popularity in opinion surveys.
“People were looking for someone to come in, take charge, be assertive, be substantive, make tough decisions, and that fit with his approach,” the adviser said. “But what made him so attractive on the front end, in part, is probably why you have poll numbers issues right now.”