Gov. Bobby Jindal says he’s not sure yet if he’s a candidate for president in 2016, but he is certain about one thing: He is not an evolutionary biologist.
So he declared last month in a breakfast meeting with journalists hosted by The Christian Science Monitor in Washington, by way of evading a question about his personal view of the theory of evolution. Given his assiduous courting of the religious right as he ponders a White House run, the question put him on the spot.
The “evolutionary” descriptor is important, because Jindal is, by some measures, a biologist: He received an honors degree in the subject from an Ivy League institution, Brown University.
Despite his modest demurral in Washington, Jindal apparently lays claim to expertise in several other areas.
Such as epidemiology: Earlier this month, Jindal called for a ban on travel from countries ravaged by the Ebola virus; it was, he said, an “obvious” measure to combat the epidemic. That must have been news to Dr. Tom Frieden, the director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, who says a travel ban would be counterproductive. For the record, Frieden is a physician with both medical and public-health degrees from another Ivy League institution, Columbia University, and he received sub-specialty training in infectious diseases at a third, Yale University.
Foreign policy also has received the Jindal treatment recently. He gave a speech on the subject to a think tank in Washington this month (Jindal co-majored in public policy at Brown and received a master’s degree in political science from Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar). And Jindal took on sociology back in August, when he wrote an opinion piece for Politico on race and ethnic relations — a field to which, as the son of immigrants from India, he brings a personal perspective.
Jindal’s public pronouncements have earned him considerable notice from the media. In an article headlined “What about Bobby Jindal?” the conservative-leaning Washington Examiner touted Jindal as a health-policy wonk who is “smart, experienced, full of ideas” — and wondered why he lags so badly in polls of potential Republican presidential candidates. The Hill, a political outlet in Washington, chose “The new and improved Jindal” as the headline for an article on his more relaxed and humorous speaking style.
But not all the attention has been flattering.
Jindal’s comments at the Washington breakfast were featured in an extended satirical segment on “The Colbert Report” on the Comedy Central cable-TV network, with host Stephen Colbert saluting Jindal’s “impressive retreat from knowledge” and suggesting Jindal might advance the claim that “thunder is just God bowling.”
Jindal’s foreign-policy address drew a somewhat harsher response from Jim Newell, of salon.com, who called the speech a “farce” and Jindal himself “a looney toon.”
Syndicated newspaper columnist Froma Harrop seized on Jindal’s Ebola comments when she drew a link between the public-health threat to Americans posed by the disease and the refusal of Republican governors to accept the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, the signature legislation of Democratic President Barack Obama.
“Jindal was inexplicably proud to decline $6 billion in federal money to expand Medicaid coverage in his state,” Harrop wrote. “Nearly 900,000 Louisianans currently lack health insurance.
“ ‘Expansion would result in 41 percent of Louisiana’s population being enrolled in Medicaid,’ Jindal explained at the time. ‘We should measure success by reducing the number of people on public assistance.’
“There are many ways of measuring success in a society, widespread health coverage being one,” Harrop wrote. “Instead, we see a political failure that has left Americans more vulnerable to a deadly disease than they had to be. It’s really something.”
Even Jindal’s paean in Politico to the racial melting pot drew the scorn of one liberal blog, The People’s View. Contributor Spandan Chakrabarti, who immigrated from India as a teen, prefers the metaphor of the salad bowl that Jindal specifically rejects. The governor’s own dissolution into the American vessel, Chakrabarti says, was facilitated when the youthful Jindal shed his given name of Piyush for the all-American one he uses now.
There’s an old saying in public life that “I don’t care what the newspapers say about me as long as they spell my name right.” If nothing else, Jindal has made that easier to do.
Follow Gregory Roberts of The Advocate Washington bureau on Twitter, @GregRobertsDC.