If you are a prominent politician with big time ambitions, say like running for president, and someone approaches you about delivering your party’s response to the incumbent chief executive’s address to the Congress, State of the Union or otherwise, you probably should come down with a sudden case of laryngitis.
The history of those who have taken over that seemingly awesome responsibility, particularly in the Republican ranks, has not been all that great despite the promise the "honor" holds for advancing one’s aspirations. There is nothing like being chosen to carry the party banner in front of millions and suddenly becoming a front runner for that loftiest of all political positions, right?
Well, that’s what one would think if one hadn’t been paying attention to the history of these things, which apparently was the case with the latest of those to try his hand, Bobby Jindal, who may have been too busy with rebuilding his still flood battered state, soaring crime rates and, of course, Mardi Gras to do some research. Certainly his tender age of 37 probably mitigated against an extensive firsthand knowledge of the past outcomes of this privilege.
Jindal, the Rhodes scholar son of immigrants from India, has been increasingly cited as the greatest hope for picking up the shattered pieces of his party and the conservative movement, a brilliant, fast talker who could challenge the GOP’s portrayal as a decaying bastion of white Anglo-Saxon protestants and bring it into the 21st century at least in diversity if not altogether in ideology. But that mantle may have slipped more than somewhat after his appearance following President Barack Obama’s first address to the Congress.
Unfortunately, the governor’s nationwide television rebuttal came after 55 minutes of the president’s speech plus other delays and probably didn’t reach very many Americans who by 10 p.m. or so had had enough of brain taxing rhetoric and were either ready to turn off their sets or switch to cable channels. Those who stuck around for the view of the new phenomenon saw a sort of "wimpy" fellow who had little or nothing new to add to the national debate on the economy and whose delivery was noticeably inferior to Obama’s. That may seem a harsh analysis given the book on Jindal as a tough, quick-witted superstar quite able to grasp complex problems.
But he was in good company when it comes to these disappointing performances. Fred Thompson, the Watergate/legal/politician/movie star, accepted the assignment with great anticipation by those around him just after being elected to the Senate. Here was a tall, virile, big-boned son of Tennessee, a real life lawyer and experienced actor who would be a natural for the job of competing with anything Bill Clinton proposed in his State of the Union. His backers saw it as a rare chance to lift their man to the top of the aspirants for the presidential nomination in 1996. While not entirely a bust, Thompson’s performance could only be described as lackluster.
Then there was the most unfortunate decision by Robert Dole, an articulate, witty and skillful Senate leader with solid center rail credentials, a wounded hero of World War II, and a man most members of the press — liberal, conservative, or centrist — admired. He should have wowed them. Instead, the harsh lights, bad script and unusually halting approach, for him at least, left him looking like a leftover of a past generation. He ultimately became the nominee in ’96, but the over-the-hill image never went away.
Jindal fortunately has all kinds of time to overcome the bad reviews. Those who know him say he is a quick study who doesn’t repeat mistakes like the one the other night. He is young enough that even if he doesn’t make it four years from now, the chances are he could be in contention for years to come. But the Republicans and the Democrats when it is their time should not offer their superstars the opportunity for self-immolation that these addresses have become.
(E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan(at)aol.com.)