Jindal talks up sheriff with complicated racial history

In his speech Tuesday night, the Louisiana governor praised a local lawman with a history of controversy over his attitude toward African-Americans.

By Alex Koppelman

Published February 25, 2009 3:45PM (EST)

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal didn't have a good night on Tuesday. Tapped to deliver the Republican response to President Obama's address to Congress, Jindal -- once seen as the future of his party, though that might not be true now -- covered himself in flop sweat. His delivery was poor, hurried, unconvincing, his appearance unpresidential. And his one use of that favorite politician's trick, the everyday American anecdote, was very nearly disastrous.

Jindal is lucky that, for now, few people seem to have picked up on the history of Harry Lee, the late sheriff of Jefferson Parish, La., the hero of this Hurricane Katrina story the governor told Tuesday night:

During Katrina, I visited Sheriff Harry Lee, a Democrat and a good friend of mine. When I walked into his makeshift office I’d never seen him so angry. He was yelling into the phone: "Well, I’m the sheriff and if you don’t like it you can come and arrest me!" I asked him: "Sheriff, what’s got you so mad?" He told me that he had put out a call for volunteers to come with their boats to rescue people who were trapped on their rooftops by the floodwaters. The boats were all lined up ready to go -- when some bureaucrat showed up and told them they couldn’t go out on the water unless they had proof of insurance and registration. I told him, "Sheriff, that’s ridiculous." And before I knew it, he was yelling into the phone: "Congressman Jindal is here, and he says you can come and arrest him too!" Harry just told the boaters to ignore the bureaucrats and start rescuing people.

There is a lesson in this experience: The strength of America is not found in our government. It is found in the compassionate hearts and enterprising spirit of our citizens. We are grateful for the support we have received from across the nation for the ongoing recovery efforts. This spirit got Louisiana through the hurricanes -- and this spirit will get our nation through the storms we face today.

It was particularly ironic that Jindal chose to tell a story involving Lee's conduct during Katrina. He may have been right in that instance, but he's also known as one of the officials who made the infamous decision to close the Crescent City Connection bridge to people, mostly African-Americans, trying to escape New Orleans in the aftermath of the hurricane.

That wasn't the only time Lee, who served Jefferson Parish for decades before his death in 2007, created controversy with his decisions and public statements, which were not infrequently perceived as racist.

The trouble began as far back as 1986, when, during a wave of robberies, Lee said, "If there are some young blacks driving a car late at night in a predominantly white neighborhood, they will be stopped. There's a pretty good chance they're up to no good." As Politico's Glenn Thrush documents, Lee didn't exactly become more moderate as he aged; after Katrina brought about a rise in drug-related crime, the sheriff called for racial profiling, saying he wanted his deputies to stop "young blacks in rinky-dink cars." Not long before his death, he told a reporter, "We know the crime is in the black community. Why should I waste time in the white community?"

Lee's story isn't, if you'll pardon the pun, black-and-white. While some people saw him as a racist, others saw him as someone who was just saying what he felt and doing what he could to protect everyone in his community, African-Americans included, and he did win a grudging sort of respect from his critics. A Democrat, he was a huge presence -- literally and figuratively -- in Louisiana politics, and Jindal was hardly his only powerful friend. Democrats like Edwin Edwards and Mary Landrieu had good things to say about him too, and the Clintons were friendly with him; when Lee died, former President Bill Clinton recorded a eulogy to be played at his funeral.

That said, though, it was odd to hear Jindal citing Lee on Tuesday night. The governor is supposed to represent the new GOP; why risk tarnishing it with the worst parts of its old image?

Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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