If radio host Jim Engster is a friend of yours, tell him that friends don’t do to friends what he did to yours truly.
His assignment for “Talk Louisiana” on public radio: Rate the 10 governors in your lifetime.
Well, how does one rate them?
Like most good ideas for radio shows in the dog days of summer, this one was stolen. Veteran journalist John Brummett in Arkansas did such a list. (A liberal, Brummett put Winthrop Rockefeller at the top of his list, not Bill Clinton or Dale Bumpers or Mike Huckabee, all better-known.) And the Brummett list was based on being the best governor of Arkansas.
As for my lifetime, that goes back to being born on the tail end of Bob Kennon and about to enter the glorious (journalistically) madhouse last term of Earl K. Long.
What would you do? Not being a historian, and with precious little personal contact with several on the list — I heard a couple of them on the campaign trail later in life, like John J. McKeithen and Jimmie Davis — how do you rate them?
Well, like all make-a-list parlor games, shallow though it might be, why not make an E List? Not E for effort, but E for effectiveness.
Perhaps it’s best for controversy’s sake that the E List should begin with Bobby Jindal.
What? His name is mud now. And above Edwin W. Edwards? The latter won four times, and there is nothing more important in political effectiveness than getting reelected. Edwards essentially got beat once but also, although often with some difficulty, ruled in the Legislature in a fashion that McKeithen or other predecessors might have envied.
He famously said he would shut off dialysis machines if legislators didn’t raise taxes. That far exceeded John Bel Edwards’ argument that colleges wouldn’t be able to afford their football teams if taxes didn’t get raised.
In both cases, the taxes were raised, though. Whatever you think about that, the difference is that both were men of government, capable but raised in the Louisiana Way. If Edwards 2.0 is of much finer moral character, Edwards 1.0 shared with him a commitment to funding programs, making them better — in other words, the system as they found it.
Not ignoble, even sometimes with Edwards 1.0. But for Jindal and others who challenged the status quo, they deserve a leg up on the list; it’s harder to change things in more radical ways. “Big John” McKeithen was also a powerful and effective governor, but still ruled over the system rather than overturn it.
These arguments push up on the list Mike Foster, like a Dwight Eisenhower of Mansion Drive, who was not the most eloquent speaker but who picked talent to work for him and made significant and lasting changes, like a community college system.
Jindal overturned the charity hospital system, which no one thought would happen. Perhaps he did it in an underhanded way, through the LSU board’s actions, because he probably could not have won that battle in the Legislature. John Bel Edwards also expanded Medicaid coverage through executive order; given the chaos of his first term with a recalcitrant GOP-led House, would that have happened in a regular process?
Jindal’s legislative accomplishments, though, were not minor. Teacher unions are still kvetching to Edwards 2.0 about Act 1 of 2012, which overturned power relationships in school systems across the state. There’s still a Jindal voucher program subsidizing some parochial schools, and Edwards 2.0 can’t do anything about it. Leave aside Jindal's catastrophic mismanagement of state finances; this isn't a “best of” list.
An E List undeservedly pushes down the list governors like Kathleen B. Blanco, who did not seek reelection, but overruled her own followers to reform schools in New Orleans. Jindal carried that to completion, but she started it.
Nor does it help David C. Treen, whom I served in office and who retains my greatest respect and affection. He made many changes in education and environmental protection, such as saving the Atchafalaya Basin as we know it; redevelopment of the Warehouse District was a long-term gift to New Orleans. But many of his efforts were undone in Edwards’ third term.
Failure to get reelected is a big fault on an E List, as it is for Buddy Roemer. He also lost on a big tax reform initiative, but over time many of his ideas were later adopted, as was a more robust state role in protecting the environment.
The point of the parlor game was discussion, so maybe it will provoke it, but the “best of” list would be different.
Email Lanny Keller at email@example.com.