Washington — If you didn’t know Gov. Bobby Jindal, you might think he was the sort of reactionary, know-nothing, anti-intellectual demagogue who gives knuckle-draggers a bad name.
He’s scheduled to speak this month in Florida before a Catholic business organization whose anti-gay attitudes are so controversial that several other invitees have dropped out of the lineup, including MillerCoors CEO Pete Coors, a conservative Republican who supported a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in his U.S. Senate campaign in Colorado in 2004, and Bret Baier, an anchorman for the right’s favorite media outlet, Fox News.
That will follow Jindal’s appearance Saturday in Baton Rouge at a mass prayer meeting sponsored by the American Family Association, which goes the anti-gay agenda one or two better: Until recently, the organization’s website linked tornadoes and Hurricane Katrina to the spread of same-sex marriages, abortions and pornography.
In both cases, Jindal has defied criticism of his decisions to join hands with the sponsors. But he’s probably getting used to that kind of thing: He touched off a firestorm Monday when he raised the specter of Muslim “no-go zones” in Europe in a speech in London, despite disavowals of the claim just before the speech by Fox News and others who previously had advanced it. Undeterred, Jindal has warned that nefarious Muslim colonizers have their eyes on the United States.
Last year, Jindal mounted the barricades to defend the nation against the threat of the Ebola virus. When the federal government, citing expert medical advice, declined to impose travel restrictions for the Ebola-infected regions of West Africa, Jindal directed state agencies to develop travel bans for their own personnel. And when the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene held its annual conference in New Orleans in November, the Jindal administration told doctors to stay away if they had cared for any Ebola patients within the previous three weeks and warned they would be confined to their hotel rooms if they came anyway.
In fairness, the Ebola hysteria was not limited to Jindal and his fellow Republicans. As it turns out, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, the death toll for people who have contracted Ebola in the United States is zero. The nation’s one fatal case involved a traveler who was infected in Africa.
Jindal admits his knowledge of science is limited, despite his biology degree from Brown University: Asked in September about his views on evolution, he fended off the question by clarifying that he is not an evolutionary biologist.
But of course, if you do know Jindal, then you know the idea of him as some kind of benighted yahoo is way off base.
That Ivy League biology degree? It was just one of two honors degrees he earned at Brown — the other was in public policy — before graduating at age 20 and then heading off to Oxford University in England as a Rhodes Scholar.
Back in the U.S., his precocity as a congressional intern led to his 1996 appointment, at age 24, as secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals. In 1999, he was named the youngest president of the University of Louisiana system. Elected to Congress in 2004, he won the governor’s race in 2007 and again in 2011.
Now Jindal is an all-but-announced candidate for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. And the Janus-like combination of his public persona and his personal history looks like an inspired campaign strategy.
Jindal can woo the fundamentalist wing of the Republican Party while still drawing on his impressive résumé to maintain cred with media elites and opinion-makers. Consider how the conservative National Review described him in a blog post titled “Jindal Courts the Religious Right”: “His actions say he’s not just a Rhodes Scholar-cum-policy wonk but that he understands the spiritual, the sacred, too.”
It’s a sweet deal for Jindal. There is some risk: The recent public posturings can be reproduced in attack ads with much more immediacy than a diploma from 25 years ago. But if it gets to that point, where Jindal has to worry about his appeal beyond the right end of the political spectrum that comprises most of the Republican Party, he already will have traveled far.
Gregory Roberts is chief of The Advocate Washington bureau. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, and he is on Twitter, @GregRobertsDC. For more coverage of national government and politics, follow The Advocate Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog.