Monday, March 02, 2009

Something About Harry

Today's Howler does a great job using close, careful reading to calm some of the hubbub over Bobby Jindal's Katrina-related remarks during his painful response to Obama's big speech last week—it's sad that some in the Actual Liberal Media resort to the same fast-and-loose-with-the-facts approach that characterizes so much of the So-Called Liberal Media—but I have to disagree when the Howler says at the end that "this was never worth discussing." It seems to me that all the epistemological attention to the details of Jindal's anecdote is distracting attention from its rhetorical aspects. Let's not forget who former Jefferson Parish sheriff Harry Lee was, after all. From an NPR profile less than a year before he died:

For 26 years, Lee has been the top cop and chief taxing authority of the booming jurisdiction of nearly half a million people, and because of peculiar state law, there's little oversight.

"The sheriff of [Jefferson Parish] is the closest thing there is to being a king in the U.S. I have no unions, I don't have civil service, I hire and fire at will. I don't have to go to council and propose a budget. I approve the budget. I'm the head of the law-enforcement district, and the law-enforcement district only has one vote, which is me," he says.

Columnist James Gill of the Times-Picayune in New Orleans has written often over the years about the sheriff.

"He's a great character, everyone likes him. Some people fear him. He can be sheriff of Jefferson Parish for as long as he wants. Harry Lee has always been a law unto himself," Gill says.

And let's not forget what he's famous for:
Twenty years ago, after a rash of robberies by black men of white residents in their driveways, Lee vowed to stop and question blacks driving "rinky-dink cars" in white neighborhoods. The NAACP called on him to resign. Lee called a press conference the next day and said his plan was a mistake.

Late last month, it happened again. An offhand comment to a TV reporter created a new controversy.

"We know the crime is in the black community. Why should I waste time in the white community?" Lee was quoted as saying.

I don't know how many of you out there recognized the name "Harry Lee" at all when Jindal uttered it, but I did; I knew right away that he was referring to the infamous Chinese-American good-old-boy sheriff with rather, ahem, forthright views on race and crime that I'd heard about from a Louisiana girlfriend years ago. But wait—let's look more closely at that incident courtesy of the Times-Picayune's obit:
A year later, however, after a series of Metairie robberies in which white shoppers were followed to their homes and held up at gunpoint in their driveways by African-American men, Mr. Lee made the statement that either almost ended or saved his career, depending on who judges it. "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. It's obvious two young blacks driving a rinky-dink car in a predominantly white neighborhood -- I'm not talking about on the main thoroughfare, but if they're on one of the side streets and they're cruising around -- they'll be stopped."
I'm generous enough to suggest that the "side streets" remark helps him a little bit, but still—let's not forget where we're talking about (emphases added):
Since Hurricane Katrina, murders in Jefferson Parish have doubled, the majority of them black-on-black killings. The sheriff tried, in vain, to explain his intended get-tough tactics the next day at a press conference inside his gray, fortress-like headquarters.

"We know where the problem areas are. If we see some black guys on the corner milling around, we would confront them," he said.

The president of the regional NAACP, Donatus King, wasn't buying it.

"Confronting a group of black people on the street corner merely because they're black and milling around is a form of racial profiling. The NAACP opposes that tactic," King said.

Under pressure, the sheriff said his deputies would not be indiscriminately frisking African-American males.

A few days later, the Times-Picayune ran an unscientific poll. The phone calls ran 22 for the NAACP, 789 for Harry Lee.

More recently, Lee says he wants to patrol dangerous neighborhoods in armored vehicles.

Jefferson Parish is overwhelmingly white. In 1989, the parish elected David Duke — the former Ku Klux Klan leader — to be its state representative.

I think that Jindal's much-chewed-upon Katrina anecdote was intended as nothing more than a clever rhetorical threefer. Look again at what he said:
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.
Jindal manages to do three things here:
  1. He says something nice about a Democrat. Bipartisanship, dontcha know.
  2. He reinforces the "government bureaucrat = bad, local authoritarian = good" motif that has been the lifeblood of mass-market Republicanism since at least Reagan's governor days.
  3. He publicly lauds a race-baiter hero and thereby shores up his cred with a certain sizable chunk of the Republican base—and with no small number of Democrats, too. Remember, just 'cause some of us can't hear a dog whistle doesn't mean it ain't blowing.
Not bad for one quick anecdote in a lackluster speech. I'm sorry, but if we've learned anything from the last 30-50 years, it's to pay closer attention when Republicans tell too-convenient stories like this. The Howler is indeed right that we should not garble the facts when we do; however, we should also beware of assuming that concern for the facts is foremost in the mind of a politician who tells such a story in the first place.

Anything to take the attention off the fact that ChimpCo cut the funding for the levees.
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