Louisiana used to produce politicians who could skewer their opponents with style. Thus did one governor, Earl Long, observe of another, the jug-eared Robert Kennon, that “he can stand in a courthouse in Ville Platte and hear a dollar bill drop in Opelousas.”
When two other governors debated some years later, David Treen asked Edwin Edwards why he talked out of both sides of his mouth. “So people like you with half a brain can understand me” was the immediate rejoinder.
The art of political invective is in sad decline these days, however. The Republicans have been trying their hands at it since Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne broke their party ranks to endorse state Rep. John Bel Edwards for governor against U.S. Sen.David Vitter. It is unlikely that Dardenne felt any sting.
State GOP chairman Roger Villere compared Dardenne to Nick Saban, whose name may be a byword for treachery among dimmer fans of the LSU football team, but whose only offense has been to seek advancement in a career that has made him one of the most successful coaches in the history of college football. He won national titles at both LSU and Alabama.
Certain LSU fans will no doubt have felt all the more resentful a couple of days after Villere’s denunciation when Saban’s Crimson Tide whipped his old school, but it is about time they recognized Baton Rouge has no claims on his loyalty.
Saban is from West Virginia and, in addition to working as an assistant in the NFL, had coached two college teams — Toledo and Michigan State — before being hired at LSU late in 1999. When he left here at the end of the 2004 season, it was to coach the Miami Dolphins in the NFL, and only two years later did he sign with LSU’s old enemy. His eight-year, $32 million guaranteed contract at Alabama put him among the highest-paid coaches, college or pro, in the country. If taking advantage of such a professional opportunity is to be regarded as perfidy, the GOP must quit preaching self-reliance and free markets.
If Villere wanted to compare Dardenne to a traitor, he might have been better advised to invoke, say, Benedict Arnold. Perhaps, though, given our educational standards, that would have left voters scratching their heads, whereas slurring Saban certainly made Villere’s point clear. Dardenne, however, did not appear insulted by the comparison. Outside rabid LSU circles, it would probably rank as a compliment.
Dardenne, as it happens, is an LSU fan. He will certainly remember that Saban used to be a god around here and did a lot of good for the program.
If Villere’s objurgations lacked the bite of vintage Louisiana invective, Peter Egan, chairman of the GOP in St. Tammany Parish, crammed enough venom for two in his response to the Edwards endorsement. The letter Egan wrote to Dardenne, however, merely demonstrated that over-the-top abuse is no substitute for the witty put-down.
Egan averred that Dardenne reminded him of a spurned lover, which is, perhaps fair enough, considering that he finished behind Vitter and another Republican, Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, in the primary election. Egan was not content to depict Dardenne as a generic swain given the heave-ho, however. Instead, in Egan’s disordered imagination, Dardenne became a violent criminal. “The behavior of endorsing Edwards is akin to that of a jilted man firing indiscriminately at his wife’s car, mindless of the collateral harm and injury to many innocent people,” he wrote. If Republicans believe such crazy stuff, maybe endorsing a Democrat makes sense at that.
Whereas Villere and Egan evidently regard rigid party loyalty as an overriding virtue, Dardenne responded to their observations with the heresy that he was for “what is best for Louisiana” and thought Edwards more likely to “unify the state.”
This is clearly no normal Louisiana election. Business is gung-ho for Vitter, while against him we find teacher unions and trial lawyers, which would ordinarily be enough to scupper Edwards’ chances. It is not easy for a Republican to lose a statewide race anyway, and Vitter’s history of humbug and whoring has never caused him to miss a beat before. The reaction to Dardenne’s endorsement suggests that the hierarchy fears that Vitter may finally found the secret to losing an election, though, and the polls bear that out.
Dardenne, after enduring a vicious primary onslaught from Vitter, has an obvious reason to side with Edwards, but he will probably not be the only Republican to change allegiance. Even Republicans who stand with Vitter do not appear to regard him with fondness. After State Treasurer John Kennedy conceded that Vitter was not the guy to have a beer with, state Rep. Tim Burns declared in a blog that governors don’t have to be likeable.
We may have lost the art of skewering enemies, but we can still insult our friends with panache.
James Gill’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.