Wednesday, October 13, 2010
What happens when two career politicians stop talking
politics and at least try to be real people? It's awkward,
for sure, but well worth knowing.
By Jeremy Alford
Wednesday, October 13, 2010
What happens when two career politicians stop talking politics and at least try to be real people?
It's awkward, for sure, but well worth knowing.
By Jeremy Alford
Chapter 1: Geaux, Charlie, Geaux!
"From infancy on, we are all spies; the shame is not this, but that the secrets to be discovered are so paltry and few."
- John Updike, from Bech: A Book (1970)
The man in the LSU jersey stood behind the ornate, knee-high fence, apart from the crowd and with a camcorder in one of his hands. He shifted his weight from foot to foot nervously as Erika Lewis and Tuba Skinny started in on a little ditty from the stage of the Abita Beer Plaza. They're the front for a New Orleans-based brass band, and every single member of the ensemble oozes nostalgia, with their fedora hats, antique clothing, washboard player and sounds that would have been commonplace in a Prohibition-era speakeasy.
The band actually blended in seamlessly during the old-fashioned political rally that was held for Democrats in the sleepy town of Abita Springs Oct. 16. It was another era, another place. Everything that couldn't walk off was draped in red stripes or blue stars. People had lugged their own lawn chairs to the event, children were lining up to have their faces painted, and a Mayberry vibe bubbled throughout like the spring-fed creeks that crisscross the region.
The sun was high and unencumbered, forcing the 75 or so political revelers to seek shade under the awnings of the Trail Head Museum, just behind the plaza: inside the park's gazebo where candidates were handing out push cards; underneath little tents where you could add your name to petitions or buy a sandwich, brownie and a cup of lemonade for a few bucks; and around the few trees that created a boundary between the Democratic activism - the American Civil Liberties Union had a table near the Progressive Northshore Democrats - and the rest of the predominately Republican-leaning state.
There were hippies and yuppies, young and old, pierced and preppy, and mostly white. For his part, the man in the LSU jersey didn't fit into the crowd. At least it didn't look that way. He was fidgety, kept checking his phone and was inarguably uninterested in his surroundings. As soon as the band wrapped up its set, however, he became focused and began peering through the crowd for a face.
He was looking for Charlie Melancon, a Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives who hails from the cozy Cajun hamlet of Napoleonville. He's putting it all on the line on Nov. 2 to challenge incumbent Sen. David Vitter, a Metairie Republican who would find it impossible to garner the same hero's welcome Melancon did in Abita Springs on that breezy Saturday afternoon. (Then again, there's only a snowball's chance in hell Melancon would have been as warmly embraced as Vitter was at a tea party rally the senator attended only a handful of miles away that very afternoon.)
But the anxiety or trepidation or whatever it was didn't appear to persist. As soon as Melancon made his way onto the plaza stage and positioned himself behind its podium and the right of his wife, Peachy, the man in the LSU jersey stood still and lifted the camcorder to eye level. A red light came on. It was show time.
The congressman was barely five minutes into his stump speech when a spectator decided to make politics more interactive. "Talk about health care! Hey! Talk about health care!"
The man in the LSU jersey smiled to himself. It was a heckler, obviously hellbent on linking Melancon with President Barack Obama. After six years of holding federal office, though, such nuisances are old hat for Melancon. He simply paused and stared a hole through the heckler. "You wanna talk?" Melancon asked as heads in the audience collecting before him turned. The heckler remained silent and blushed. The man in the LSU jersey kept that self-satisfied smile on his face and kept recording.
Then, as suddenly as he started, Melancon was done. He asked for folks to support his campaign and slowly made his way to the heckler. Meanwhile, toward the rear of the park, the man in the LSU jersey snapped shut the lid on his camcorder, walked to his vehicle and drove off. His identity, still to today, remains a mystery to this writer, but his contribution to the ongoing Senate race would become apparent just three days later.
Chapter 2: David Sips the Tea
"Youth, beauty, graceful action, seldom fail/But common interest always will prevail"
- John Dryden, from "Absalom and Achitophel" (1681)
Stephen Sabludowsky arrived fashionably late to this particular gathering of the Northshore Tea Party, just as the "Star Bangled Banner" was being played over a set of large speakers. It was going to be a busy afternoon. First, he needed to get a few minutes of David Vitter's tea talk on video and, if that wrapped up on time, drive four miles east to do the same thing in Abita Springs where a pep rally for Charlie Melancon was being held later in the afternoon. If either candidate said anything remotely of interest, Sabludowsky planned on posting the video to his political news site, BayouBuzz.com. But unlike the man in the LSU jersey, Sabludowsky made his presence known and was there representing Bayou Buzz, rather than tracking a candidate for the opposition.
Sabludowsky blogs on the site, does a touch of original reporting and puts together statewide news summaries. He knows that getting live footage of the media-shy Vitter is like landing real images of Sasquatch. Like other politicians on the federal level, especially those facing re-election, Vitter, or more directly his handlers, only allow very limited access. But Sabludowsky has a ringer in political pundit Jeff Crouere, who emceed the "Family Fun to Get it Done" rally and tipped off Sabludowsky about Vitter's speech.
Rep. Charlie Melancon is the quintessential "family man." Above: with grandson Jack following a deer hunt; Below: with Peachy, son Seph and daughter Claire
Nearly 100 people, however, did not show up to the Covington Trailhead Park to see Sabludowsky or Crouere. They came to hear stump speeches from Vitter and his successor in the U.S. House, Congressman Steve Scalise, also a Metairie Republican. And almost as soon as Sabludowsky made his way near the stage, Vitter was introduced by Crouere. Tea party activists placed their homemade signs on the ground, a kid climbed up a metal pole toward the back of the crowd to get a better look, and an elderly VFW member with his little hat wandered around looking for somewhere to sit.
There's no doubting what sort of electorate lives around this park, with its series of American flags and hard-to-miss memorial to former President Ronald Reagan. Seriously. And it's huge; at more than 9-feet high and by the hands of Ponchatoula sculptor Patrick Miller, it's the largest Reagan monument in the world and was bankrolled by late oil tycoon Patrick F. Taylor, who was one of the richest men on the planet before his passing in 2004. Reagan towered over everything that day and was often quoted. Vitter, quite literally and figuratively, spoke in his shadow.
The tea party activists listened politely, sipped from bottled water and forced air onto themselves with fans bearing Vitter's campaign logo. For an event that was billed as a family outing, there were plenty of gray heads - it was overwhelmingly an adult crowd, in fact, and there was just as much diversity as there was at Melancon's rally. Vitter, in a white polo shirt with a stain on the collar, managed to whip his audience into a frenzy with a speech that had built-in questions for crowd participation. These are his people. "A lot of us have been at these tea party gatherings for well over a year," he says. "We were here before it was cool."
He brings up "Obamacare" and prompts a silent round of boos. He talks about the deficit, with arms flailing, quotes Reagan, slams liberals and makes a passionate plea for people to vote and volunteer. The Democrats are in control right now, he says, but Republicans are nipping at their heels. "Are you ready to do something about it?" Vitter asks, his voice increasing in volume. The crowd goes absolutely bonkers. "Are you ready to win?" he asks in the same fashion. Again, pandemonium, only louder.
Vitter laughs and claps his hands, looking over the crowd. There's a brief moment of silence, and you can hear metal clasps clinging against the park's flagpoles. A cool breeze flowing over democracy in action. "I'm a little concerned because when I asked if everyone was ready to win, there was a big roar. But when I asked you to do those three concrete things, it was a little muted," he says chuckling again, referencing his appeal for volunteers.
Then, as soon as he had the crowd yearning for more, Vitter made a slight wave and thanked the tea party folks for their indulgences. Sabludowsky shut off his camera, but kept a close eye on Vitter. "The senator didn't as much work the crowd as the crowd worked him," Sabludowsky recalls. "He stood basically in one spot and didn't really make an effort to make his way around. Still, a steady line of people kept coming up to him before he was able to leave."
It was getting late in the day. Soon, Melancon would give his stump speech in Abita Springs. The election, at that point, was still three weeks away and the voters amassed near Reagan's statue seemed to be more interested in the football game scheduled later that evening pitting LSU against McNeese State. Of course, as we know, they weren't the only LSU fans in St. Tammany Parish that October afternoon.
Chapter 3: Campaigns Collide (or) Why Politics Suck Sometimes
"I have resorted to barnyard words because of the amount of bullshit, horseshit and chickenshit involved in politics. I'm sorry I can't devise a more polite mode of expression."
- P.J. O'Rourke, from Don't Vote: It Just Encourages the Bastards (2010)
Three days later, TheHayride.com posted a 12-second video sample of Melancon's Abita Springs speech on YouTube and then embedded the clip on its conservative-leaning blog. It was accompanied by a brief read from "macaoidh," the handle for Hayride's publisher Scott McKay, known best in Baton Rouge for publishing sports news in the late 1990s and early 2000s. These days, he's more into venture projects and political websites. But unlike other political bloggers, McKay doesn't hold back about his ideology nor does he cover up his identity.
That 12-second video clip, though, was thinly veiled. It was also shot from the angle where the man in the LSU jersey was standing that afternoon two weekends ago. He was clearly a tracker, usually a college-aged kid paid by a campaign or political party to catch as much of a candidate's remarks on tape as possible. "I saw him, I saw him," Melancon says when it's brought to his attention in Abita Springs. (For what it's worth, the Louisiana Democratic Party also had a tracker at the Northshore Tea Party rally.)
The video in question shows Melancon standing by Peachy and uttering only three sentences about the supposed demise of his own bid and Vitter's recent prediction about it: "After [Vitter] spent over $2 million dollars from the beginning of August to the end of October, he knocked our points down about 17 points. What he was saying was true. He busted us."
Here's the rub: Melancon misspoke. Had Hayride posted the rest of the video, a different picture would have played out. "In two weeks of getting...," Melancon continues before Peachy leans in and whispers something. "Well, what he was saying wasn't true, but he busted us with his ad. But in less than two weeks of advertising, we got up and we're back to seven points down from David Vitter." (Internal polling released more recently by Melancon suggests the spread is now down to three points.)
McKay couldn't or wouldn't reveal his source for the video but says he would have posted the comments in their entirety had he had the footage. "It came from an anonymous source," McKay says. "I just posted what they gave me."
Above all else, the incident is an indictment of modern politics. Petty spying has replaced issues-based campaigns, videos of half-truths are standing in for public debates, and the candidates have become brands and products, rather than men, in this case. Politics has become an industry where people like McKay and Sabludowsky can turn a dime and become influencers, and where other people peddle fiction from the shadows. Anything is possible. Well, almost anything.
The system is set up so that we never know anything personal about the candidates because, chiefly, they're no longer real people. If a staffer interrupted President Barack Obama or Gov. Bobby Jindal during a press conference to replace their batteries, it's doubtful that many of us would even blink - fine, if our political leaders were robots, it would be a huge story, but you surely get the point.
That's why The Independent Weekly asked both candidates to get real, just for a little while, to talk about their childhoods, college days, families, interests and disinterests. The end results may very well say more about the candidates than their campaigns.
Chapter 4: Melancon on Charlie, supposedly over beers
"Over? Did you say over? Nothing is
over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?
- John Belushi as Bluto in Animal House (1978)
As Melancon made his way toward that heckler in Abita Springs, his D.C. press secretary, Robin Winchell laughed. She's in the district for the last and final push of the general election. "Charlie loves to find people who disagree with him and try to flip them. He loves a challenge," she says.
By no means is Melancon's team censored. They're just as conversational as he is sometimes. In fact, another staffer complained at the Saturday rally of how he had been trying to use a GPS device to navigate around Louisiana for the campaign, but Melancon would always turn the device off to offer his own directions. "I just know how to get places in my own way," the congressman said later.
A few weeks earlier, the Melancon campaign agreed to let the candidate field a few questions over beer, an exchange that was to take place at the Abita Beer Pub, right next to the park. The congressman, however, declined what amounts to free beer from The Independent Weekly after being seated. Instead, he ordered iced tea; Winchell and Peachy each had Abita's Fall Fest, an Oktoberfest variety. The rest of the staff sat at the bar.
With a guarantee that nothing would be off limits, Melancon's interview often veered into strange corners:
Cockfighting: "It was a Louisiana trade that died hard. It was important not only in the rural areas, but all over the state. It was a bit macabre, though. It was time for it to end."
Baggy pants laws: Melancon says the government shouldn't be in the business of telling anyone what to wear, but added that he's personally against baggy pants in general. He recounted a story from an evening in New Orleans where a young man was shot in a public dispute because his pants kept sliding off. "He couldn't run," Melancon says, shaking his head.
Personal health: "I'm hypoglycemic," Melancon says, referring to the medical condition that results in lower than usual levels of blood glucose.
Interracial marriage and gay and lesbian relationships (not civil unions): "People marry who they love," Melancon says. "That's their business."
UFOs: "I guess a full moon comes out every so often. But if they exist, I haven't seen one."
Political folklore: "I heard [former and jailed Gov.] Edwin Edwards had a bit of tennis elbow from shaking so many hands."
Non-biodegradable cheeseburgers: "For some reason, ever since this oil spill, I feel like I've eaten more fast food than I ever cared to," he says, referring to life on the road.
Weed: "I believe in medicinal marijuana... But smoking marijuana can lead to harder substitutes. Alcohol, the same thing.
At the same time, we're just filling all of our jails with people who smoke marijuana," Melancon says before adding "it's only a matter of time" before the issues of medicinal applications and decriminalization need to be examined more closely.
Sen. David Vitter's upbringing in New Orleans, Louisiana's liberal bastion, was remarkably all-American; in the spring he played baseball and in the fall he rooted for the hometown Saints.
Melancon, who celebrated his 63rd birthday earlier this month, isn't much of a reader, just hunting and fishing periodicals mostly. He couldn't name the last book he read or his favorite novel. He says he recently tried to get through the new biography of Edwards by Baton Rouge writer Leo Honeycutt, but quit after a few chapters. "I get about 15 minutes into a book and my eyes shut," Melancon says.
He does have a fondness for comedies on the big screen. "I thought The Hangover was really funny," he says, referring to last year's Zach Galifianakis comedy about a Vegas bachelor party gone awry.
Then there's Animal House, the 1978 fraternity spoof that lifted John Belushi to new levels as the whiskey-guzzling, fat, drunk and stupid Bluto. Melancon says with a chuckle that there's a reason he relates to the movie - in the end and before the credits, the future of each character is revealed on the bottom of the screen during a freeze-frame. Bluto, it's foretold, will eventually become U.S. Sen. Blutarsky. "Art mimics life," Melancon says.
But did Melancon - still a congressman for now - really party as much as the stereotypical frat boy during his Lafayette college days (he was Kappa Sigma) at what is now UL? "I was the original party animal," he says laughing. "I'm still confused, though. We were the USL Ragin' Bulldogs. But it's OK. We did Ragin' Cajun cheers. We got through it somehow." He also admits to being called into the assistant dean's office once for a minor prank.
Peachy, his wife of 38 years, has become a staple on the campaign trail. She has an opinion on everything and isn't shy about sharing it with folks - or the congressman. It's also not above her to interrupt one of her husband's speeches, like she did in Abita Springs, to correct him.
Aside from his congressional salary, her income from a storage rental facility is the only outside income, although she's technically retired. During the interview in the Abita Beer Pub, she participated in the Q&A but showed more of an interest in her beer and the Auburn football game on the big screen.
When the topic of music was broached, Melancon named all of the local radio stations in Acadiana that play Cajun music and almost immediately named Dr. John, the New Orleans piano virtuoso. Peachy adds that she's related to Dr. John, who is scheduled to play a fundraiser for Melancon in the Crescent City home of Democratic consultant James Carville. "You should see his texts," Peachy says of Dr. John, who once described Hurricane Katrina as the "Sippiana Hericane" in a 2005 album. "They're indecipherable."
Melancon and Peachy clearly enjoy each other's company. They have two grown children - Charles Joseph, better known as Seph, and Claire - and pointedly dote more over their grandchild.
The congressman chuckles slightly when remembering how he originally made the moves on his future wife. "I met her in an elevator in 1971," he says, in New Orleans while both were working on Edwards' historic run for governor. "We would go on walks and then just started doing more and more until we weren't getting home until after midnight. I think we were only engaged for two or three months."
As for his roots, Melancon was born and has spent most of his life in Napoleonville, born the grandson and great-grandson of sugar cane farmers. While he was reared on a dead-end street called Hog-Pen Alley, not far from where he lives now, Melancon did not want as a child.
His father, Joseph U. Melancon, was mayor of Napoleonville and his mother, Nicee' "Brownie" Talbot Melancon, was a civic activist. The congressman says the experience did not make him bitter, although public service took away some quality father time, and it did not make him rebellious, being the mayor's son. "I knew if I did anything, I mean anything, they would find out," Melancon says. "But it was an experience that served me well."
Chapter 5: Vitter on David, via email
"A firm rule must be imposed upon our nation before it destroys itself. The United States needs some theology and geometry, some taste and decency. I suspect that we are teetering on the edge of the abyss."
- Ignatius J. Reilly in John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces (1980)
As expected, landing an interview - even a non-political one - proved to be difficult in Vitter's case. A phone message left for his flack seeking a personal encounter turned into requesting others associated with the campaign to carry a message seeking an interview and then, finally, into a flurry of emails asking for responses in any fashion the senator felt comfortable. The end product was an email response directly from Vitter.
While Vitter was asked all of the same questions as Melancon, the senator cherry-picked the topics he wanted to discuss, so it's difficult to judge Vitter's stance on UFOs, medicinal marijuana and your basic, normal relationships enjoyed by interracial and gay and lesbian couples. Vitter, 49 and considerably younger than Melancon, did seem to dig deep - at least a little - in an effort to participate.
Like Melancon, Vitter let loose just long enough to drive off the interview roadway a few times:
Interests: "My best friend, Claude, and I have a weekly tennis match, which we get to every other month."
Architecture: "I did the initial design of our house that we built."
Favorite book that was turned into a movie: To Kill a Mockingbird (also all-time favorite movie, with Casablanca running a close second)
Best musicals: The Sound of Music and The One and Only Genuine Original Family Band
Favorite Books: The Last Gentleman, A Confederacy of Dunces and And Then There Were None
Television: "The Dick Van Dyke Show," "Everybody Loves Raymond," "Monk ("The big bonus is my kids watch it with me.") and "Fawlty Towers" ("A great British situation comedy starring Monty Python's John Cleese.")
Food: "I love ice cream."
But, thankfully, there's much more to Louisiana's junior U.S. senator.
Vitter was born and reared in New Orleans, arguably the most liberal region of Louisiana, but later settled in Metairie, arguably the most conservative in the state. House District 81, just one of Metairie's House districts in the Louisiana Legislature and the one previously held by Vitter, has probably the highest concentration of white voters in Louisiana. It's the House district that sent former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke to the Legislature. Its current placeholder, Rep. John LaBruzzo, grabbed headlines during the legislative session this year and last, calling for drug tests for welfare recipients.
Maybe that's why it's so often overlooked that Vitter's roots are deeper in New Orleans in many respects than in Jefferson Parish. He graduated from De La Salle High School in 1979. He played first clarinet in the high school band to Wynton Marsalis' second trumpet. Of course, Marsalis, an internationally recognized classical and jazz musician, isn't on second trumpet anymore. "Our musical paths diverge slightly after that," Vitter says of his high school days, "meaning he went to Juilliard and Lincoln Center and I did not."
Vitter says he also digs Harry Connick Jr., but it might just be an opportunity to mention his wife, Wendy, who was chief of trials for former New Orleans District Attorney Harry Connick. If Vitter isn't Crescent City enough for you yet - he's also a huge Saints fan and once did a Black & Gold-themed family Christmas card - then consider the following. "My best job growing up was working for Blaine Kern Studios, the Mardi Gras float builders," Vitter says. "However, I was only allowed to paint floats the white primer coat."
He was the youngest of six children, exactly like Wendy, and together they now have their own young brood - three daughters, Sophie, Lise and Airey, and a son, Jack. "All of my waking time falls into two categories: working on behalf of my fellow citizens of Louisiana, which I love, and doing things with my family, which I love even more," Vitter says. "Wendy and I both tutor our 13-year-old [twin] Latin scholars, attend their volleyball games, follow 8-year-old Jack's soccer career and try to get penciled into 17-year-old Sophie's busy social calendar whenever possible."
His parents, Audrey Malvina St. Raymond and Albert Leopold Vitter, were both natives as well and apparently more of an influence than the City that Care Forgot. "Growing up in a middle-class neighborhood, my parents were a real inspiration, and I owe everything to them," Vitter says. "They were dedicated Christians and great personal examples. My dad was a petroleum engineer and mom a homemaker with a social work degree. Neither of them were very politically minded but both were super supportive of me."
Politics weren't even in the stars back then - they were in his mind. "Growing up, at various times, I wanted to be an astronaut, a singer/actor and a diplomat," Vitter remembers.
That's in the past. Today, he's a U.S. senator, just like the future version of Bluto in Animal House, making the connection a better fit for Vitter than Melancon, actually. But few voters in Abita Springs or Covington or elsewhere probably know a thing about that. It's a seemingly innocent peek behind the curtain of a convoluted and treacherous world.
Politics will probably always be this way - candidates holding back just enough to seem innocuous. Maybe next election cycle, The Independent Weekly can become a corporate donor to see if that will grant better access to both candidates in a major runoff. For now, though, voters hold the ultimate power and are responsible for writing the next chapter in the Book of David and Charlie on Nov. 2. Until then, it's a mystery. Or better yet, a tragicomedy.
Jeremy Alford is a freelance journalist based in Baton Rouge. You can reach him through his Web site at www.jeremyalford.com.