Disasters can be good for you, if you’re governor of Louisiana.
For Gov. Bobby Jindal in 2008, one of the best things ever to happen to him was Hurricane Gustav. His energetic response — even if much-parodied for his rapid-fire delivery of long lists of relief provided, water delivered and ice frozen — made him seem the capable executive that the people had elected in 2007.
A disaster is a good thing? Because he had some serious stumbles in his first legislative session, not least his waffling over a large proposed legislative pay raise. That ignited populist outrage, a precursor to the Tea Party that would come — and the Trump insurgency that would follow, and ironically reduce Jindal’s political career to cinders in 2016.
Nevertheless, the pay raise veto saved the young governor from an existential crisis in the spring, but hurricane response in 2008 lifted him back into public esteem. He similarly leapt into action for major crises like the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Jindal’s successor did not miss the lessons. For Gov. John Bel Edwards, as for Jindal, few things match the golden political tone of “I have ordered a meeting of the Unified Command Group.” A sense of crisis is a terrible thing to waste. Edwards — at the time of his tropical disturbances — did not emulate Jindal’s staccato but instead acted as he was trained at West Point and in the U.S. Army.
Unlike Jindal’s almost fetishistic practice of surrounding himself with uniforms, the civilian clothes or at most a windbreaker with a state seal on it are fine with Edwards. He grew up with the real things, after all.
It was that official, calm but determined manner that he sought to evoke at the Press Club of Baton Rouge. Instead of a talk devoted to Monday’s opening of the legislative session, the governor focused on the “novel coronavirus,” which most of us call just the latter word.
As an Army officer and small-town lawyer, the governor knows how to master his brief. It’s novel, because it’s a new variant of an existing virus; he explained that, while requiring public caution, the outbreaks around the globe were not a matter for panic.
Edwards had a bit of a bemused look at some of the advice he had to give. “They tell me,” he said with a bit of amusement, “that you wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap and water.” Probably not many of us do that regularly, even governors.
As there remain good reasons for concern about infectious diseases, the governor cannot be faulted on his presentation. And even an Edwards, son and grandson of powerful sheriffs, has his ego in check and alluded to the real docs and public health officers he’d brought with him to fact-check his presentation.
So far so good for John Bel Edwards.
But there are disasters that aren’t so good for governors, as Edwards knows.
One of his most important mentors and supporters was the late Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco. She left office with the wreckage of hurricanes Katrina and Rita still dominating her time and energy; had she run for reelection in 2007, with Jindal ready to challenge, her chances were dicey at best.
The novel coronavirus is a novel situation for disaster-management, even for a governor of Louisiana. It appears not be the Black Death, nor the Spanish flu of almost exactly a century ago, killing millions.
At the same time, this disaster management — including preparations for the event — is mostly out of the control of even a governor. The federal resources spent on infectious diseases are smaller, unfortunately, than “sexier” and politically popular causes. Disease is an existential threat not to a Somebody’s politics, but to everyone who has a family.
How this will play out remains to be seen. But Edwards mastered his brief and projected calm and reassurance. That’s part of the job, a command function that should, if the worst doesn’t happen, redound to his political credit, too.
Email Lanny Keller at firstname.lastname@example.org.