As a preacher’s kid growing up in hard times in Texas and Louisiana, Robert Mann had dreams for the future.
“They didn’t seem like reasonable dreams or aspiration,” he said. “But I was fascinated by politics, and I was a voracious reader of the news. In the afternoons, my mother would have to run me out of the house because I’d rather read the newspaper or read books. I couldn’t have imagined I’d have the privilege of working for Russell Long and John Breaux and have a front-row seat to politics.”
But that's just where Mann ended up.
In addition to Long and Breaux, Mann worked for U.S. Sen. J. Bennett Johnston in his 1990 reelection campaign, when he defeated former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke; helped elect Mary Landrieu to the U.S. Senate; and served as director of communications for Gov. Kathleen Blanco.
Mann, who holds the Manship Chair in Journalism at LSU's Manship School of Mass Communications, chronicles his political life in a new memoir, “Backrooms and Bayous: My Life in Louisiana Politics” (Pelican Publishing Co.)
It is both rollicking and revelatory, as readers might expect from a behind-the-scenes look at politics, but meditative and philosophical as well.
Mann’s first political involvement, while a student at Northeast Louisiana University in Monroe (now the University of Louisiana at Monroe), was working for gubernatorial candidate Dave Treen. Mann was studying journalism, but eventually turned to politics, going to Washington, D.C., to work two years for Long and then 17 years for Breaux.
“I worked for Russell Long for the last couple of hours (on his last day in office) of his 38 years in the Senate, and, then at noon, he was no longer a senator,” Mann said. “Then I turned and walked through the Dirksen Building to Sen. Breaux’s offices. I may be the only person who’s worked for two senators on the same day.”
His tenure with Long led to his first book, "Legacy to Power: Senator Russell Long of Louisiana," a biography of the senator.
Laughing, he recalled the senator accompanying him to book signings.
“People really wanted his signature. He had this habit of signing ‘With profound admiration,’ and then his name, and then he’d hand the book to me, so all I had to do was scribble my name underneath.”
Mann’s writing career progressed in tandem with his political life, and his employers encouraged him. He has written books about the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the 1964 presidential election, wartime dissent and President Ronald Reagan. He also wrote a weekly political column for The Times-Picayune from 2013 to 2018.
Mann’s passion for his work comes through in gut-wrenching passages that recount his service to Blanco, who died in 2019.
“It was my chance to set the record straight where I think she and the state got a bad rap in state and local media,” he said. “One of the things I admire about her is that she never gave up. She was as committed as anybody I’ve ever seen to doing the job and finishing the job. She made a better life for lots of people in Louisiana.”
One of the chapters about Blanco is tellingly called “We Are Not Going to Pick a Fight with This White House,” referring to her reluctance to buck President George Bush over the federal government's response to Hurricane Katrina. The governor believed, Mann said, the state would be better off cooperating with the White House to get the help Louisiana so desperately needed.
Some of the most interesting narrative strands in the memoir come when Mann turns his gaze inward, chronicling his evolution in political thinking, moving from conservative Republican to Democrat as he gained compassion for those less fortunate. He also prioritizes faith and family and rejoices in his long marriage to wife Cindy and a life in which he and his kids share the same campus.
And — perhaps a rarity in contemporary political life — Mann takes the occasion of his book to make amends. The book is dedicated to a friend he once wronged, and one memorable passage recounts a public apology to former Gov. Buddy Roemer.
“When I think of the awful things I said about him in, I think it was the 1995 governor’s race … ” Mann said. “But I’d see him around Baton Rouge, and we struck up a bit of a friendship. He didn’t seem to hold it against me, which confused me a little bit.
“I’d see him at Barnes & Noble, where I wrote a lot of this book. I wrote the chapter about him with him sitting across the room,” Mann said.
In 2008, he invited Roemer to his class at LSU and publicly apologized for his previous comments. “I wanted to model that behavior for my students,” he said.
“It’s easy to lose your way in politics,” Mann said. “The book is filled with cautionary tales. The work is so demanding and so all consuming. … I’m just glad I never worked for anybody who was a jerk.”
And that in itself may be the definition of a good life indeed.