The redemption game

Jim Gabour
20 February 2009

Ahn "Joseph" Cao, a Republican who represents the state of Louisiana, is the first elected politician of Vietnamese origin in the United States's House of Representatives. He had declared on 12 February 2009 that he would cast the only Republican vote for Barack Obama's economic-stimulus package in the House; while Bobby Jindal, the Republican governor of Louisiana, and the first US governor of Indian origin, was chosen by the party to make the only nationally-televised rebuttal of Obama's proposal, after the new president outlines his plan to the first joint session of Congress of his tenure.   


Jim Gabour is an award-winning film producer, writer and director, whose work focuses primarily on music and the diversity of cultures. He lives in New Orleans, where he is artist-in-residence and professor of video technology at Loyola University. His website is here

Many of Jim Gabour's articles for openDemocracy are collected in an edition of the openDemocracy Quarterly

For details of Undercurrent: Life after Katrina, click here 

Obama and Jindal's speeches are scheduled for Mardi Gras Day, 24 February 2009. This virtually ensures that no one in Jindal's constituency will see either. 

No matter. This overt "product placement" is determined by the Republican Party's need to redeem itself in the eyes of the American people. The "grand old party" has already put on a new public face by hiring Michael Steele to be the chair of the Republican National Committee (a competent and experienced gentleman, and the first African-American to hold that post). Now they place governor Jindal - also quite intelligent, sincere and untainted by scandal - in direct opposition to President Obama.

Both Cao and Jindal have in recent months been described as the "future of the Republican Party" (see "Three regular guys", 8 January 2009). But Cao believes the future of Republicans may lie in not acting like Republicans. He knows his New Orleans district is among the poorest in America, totally lacks infrastructure since hurricane Katrina, and is in dire need of just the sort of restorative influx that will come with Obama's plan. 

He has been meeting face to face with many of his constituents on a regular basis, and had said re the stimulus package: "I am voting along with what my conscience dictates and the needs of the 2d Congressional District dictates". Cao's constituency is, unlike him, overwhelmingly African-American and Democratic. Yet he seemed determined to represent them - until the evening of 12 February 2009, when at the last minute he succumbed to partisan politics and reversed himself. Thus the Republicans were able to make their statement: none would bend to support the Democratic president.

Bobby Jindal, meanwhile, has spent a lot of time criticising the proposed economic measures at gatherings all over the south, while simultaneously using those speeches as campaign-contribution magnets for his next step into the national spotlight. This will be advanced greatly with his carnival-day speech.


A selection of Jim Gabour's articles in openDemocracy:

"This is personal" (23 April 2007)"

Lessons in the classics
(6 August 2007)"

Native to America" (26 September 2007)"

The upper crust"
(8 November 2007)"

" (17 December 2007)"

Ruling Louisiana
" (25 July 2008)"

Hardware madness: Katrina's three years"
(24 August 2008)"

Living with Gustav" (1 September 2008)"

(8 October 2008)"

Nine-inch nails in the White House
(31 October 2008)"

Living the American movie
(5 November 2008)"

Three regular guys
" (8 January 2009)

The Louisiana swamp

Politics in the United States can be less than forgiving. The stories of careers made and broken, leaders exalted and spurned, predate even the foundation of the republic. But the stories of survival and return are also legion; there are second and even third acts in American lives. This is exactly what the Republicans are banking on: redemption in the eyes of the voting public.  

So who gets redemption?

The first month of the new era has seen quite a few ups and downs, ins and outs in Barack Obama's proposed cabinet (see Godfrey Hodgson, "Barack Obama: don't waste the crisis", 6 February 2009). But to get a better idea of what is and is not forgiven in politics, the more overtly tawdry portions of recent history offer a guide.

The case of the semi-penitent Bill Clinton is classic. For even after dissembling over the embarrassing behaviour that consumed his last year in office (and royally infuriated a future secretary of state), he has remained a huge favourite of many American people. His charisma may have dimmed during his efforts in 2008 to help get his wife a better-paying federal job, but he retains the support even of individuals who are otherwise straight-laced. This is the man referred to positively by my own mother, who after only two years of George W Bush, called me to admit that she had also recently sinned: "I have been praying that God would somehow bring back the adulterer" (see "Frozen assets: letter from New Orleans", 5 June 2006).

The result: redeemed.

The case of Newt Gingrich, ex-speaker of the House and Bill Clinton's one-time great rival, is a prime example of unrepentant redemption. In over-the-top rhetoric reminiscent of Richard Nixon's logorrhea-inflicted vice-president Spiro Agnew, Gingrich assailed the president and led the battle for impeachment. After the political fortunes were reversed, he himself was revealed to have been conducting his own double life. He said "never mind", shut his mouth, hid in north Georgia for the better part of a decade - and in 2009 is back, supposedly (at least in his own mind) cleansed of sin. Gingrich, touting himself as "the leader of the Republican revolution that swept Congress in 1994", has even initiated his own website-newsletter, "winning the future". His honesty-and-logic-challenged motto "real change requires real change", oddly enough, runs in a banner on the site advertising his book Drill Here, Drill Now, Pay Less.

The result: limited redemption.

The case of Bob Livingston, another Republican who represents the state of Louisiana in the House of Representatives - a fellow Clinton-flayer, who was chosen to succeed Gingrich as House speaker (a post he did not take up) - also became known for his the excesses of his private life. He retired from the spotlight, except when daily re-entering every office on Capitol Hill as the highly-compensated lobbyist for the Livingston Group. An early client was Turkey, whose interests over "international and historical issues" (such as denying the genocide of Armenians in 1915 and after) he defended. Bob Livingston is growing much wealthier now than during his days in public service.

The result: redemption declined.

The trail of salvation now gets more twisted. The elected Louisiana replacement for Bob Livingston in 1999 was family-values super-straight-moral-arrow David Vitter, who went on in 1992 to run for the governorship of Louisiana. He survived reports of extra-marital relations then and rumours of the same when running for the Senate in 2004, before succumbing in 2007 when substantive proof was finally offered that Vitter was partaking in numerous liaisons. In Vitter's case the acts were illegal as well as morally questionable, as he was listed as a frequent patron of call-girls, prostitutes and escort-services on both the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

The head of the escort-service used by Vitter in Washington DC subpoenaed him in late 2007, though his appearance was later cancelled. Sarah Jane Palfrey committed suicide in 2008, which brought Vitter's transgressions back into the public eye. The Senator refused to resign, but - following the Gingrich model - retreated from the media glare before re-emerging in early 2009 with a vengeance: aggressively pro-military, guns, and religious involvement in government, anti-women's choice, gay rights, and immigration-amnesty. He grandstanded at Hillary Clinton's confirmation hearings and was the sole vote against her, delaying the final verdict just to draw attention to himself.  

Stormy Daniels, a Louisiana-born star of pornographic films, announced on 13 February 2009 that she is seriously considering a run against Vitter. Despite all this, Vitter is supposedly still polling well with his constituents.

The result: redemption pending.

The Washington pit

A release from these relentless tales of sexual transgressions can be found in one quick incidence of forgiveness from violence. Dick Cheney, vice-president under George W Bush, clearly illustrated the effects of executive power on redemption. The hardline, tooth-grinding veteran shot a hunting partner in the face and body with a large-gauge shotgun, wounding the man severely (see Sidney Blumenthal, "The rules of the game", 17 February 2006). There were odd, never-explained circumstances involved, but before any serious investigation could be made Cheney was cleansed of his transgression... when the gent he shot took the blame.

The result: redeemed. And don't you forget it.

The relief from blame was not the case for the police officer who received Larry Craig's wanton overtures. The Republican representative from Idaho was arrested in a Minneapolis-St Paul airport men's room for "homosexual lewd conduct", taken to police headquarters and immediately pleaded guilty to a lesser plea of "disorderly conduct". He subsequently recanted, but did not retract his guilty plea, and was never forgiven by his constituency. Even his fellow Republicans asked him to step aside, but he stubbornly held on until his very last federal pay-cheque. His term officially ended in January 2009, eighteen months after his "sin". 

The result: unredeemable.

The Lousiana and Washington litany ends on a Democratic (if less prurient) note, with the unrepentant Louisiana ex-representative William "Dollar Bill" Jefferson. He was the receiver of $90,000 in frozen kickbacks, a "public servant" whose extended family contains people who have plundered New Orleans for decades and are, almost to a person, now under indictment. It seems probable from federal evidence that Bill, of all the politicians above, is the sole offender going to jail. He will go soon, as he no longer has the shelter of political office.

The day arrives   

I admit that I both laugh over and am simultaneously horrified by these events. But the "sins" of George W Bush and his party, a group that every moment abused what little public mandate it had over these last eight years, are much more serious than victimless philandering. I would, as my mother said, pray for the return of an "adulterer" of any political affiliation, rather than endure the wide varieties of personal power-mongering which America and her one-time partners in the world have had to face in the period of Bushite rule. 

The Republicans know this. They are attempting to reinvent themselves and project new faces into the limelight. But will it be the likes of Anh "Joseph" Cao or of Bobby Jindal who will be their salvation? It is almost frightening that the first choices are being made now, as I write these words.

The result: redemption awaits. Possibly on Mardi Gras Day.

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