The September 11 terrorist attacks turned Rudy Giuliani into “America’s Mayor” and then President George W. Bush into its defender in the minds of many. Hurricane Sandy sent Gov. Chris Christie’s approval ratings through the roof as he surveyed the ravaged New Jersey coast in his trademark fleece, hugging residents who had lost homes, and it also arguably helped boost President Barack Obama into a second term, too. After the racially-charged murder of nine churchgoers, South Carolina Gov. Nicki Haley lead a high-profile, and ultimately successful, fight to remove the Confederate flag from statehouse grounds.
And then there’s Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
In the wake of a mass shooting at a movie theater in his state last week, the governor became the only Republican candidate to get any kind of airtime amid nonstop Donald Trump news; but instead of rising to the occasion as a leader with executive experience, he shrank in the spotlight.
“We ask people for their thoughts, for their prayers, let us shower these families with love,” Jindal said during a press conference in the aftermath of the tragedy, sounding rote and rehearsed.
“Jindal said it, but you didn’t feel it,” CUNY politics professor Doug Muzzio told msnbc after watching Jindal’s recent interviews and press conferences. “There wasn’t much passion there – he’s sort of coldly analytical technocrat and it came through on this. Other than let’s pray and hug, it was dry, there was no passion there and again that was a direct contrast to Rudy [Giuliani].”
Muzzio had previously studied vintage Giuliani, who he said created the “paradigm” of the strong leader amid a crisis and “acted in such a direct, meaningful and empathetic way.”
Jindal “hasn’t been in the state forever and he comes back and he sort of does what the playbook says you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to bring the community together,” Muzzio told msnbc. “All he said was the best and most important thing we can do is pray love and hug…. Instead of a governor leader taking action, he’s saying we can’t do anything – pray – it was a sign of absolutely total helplessness. It wasn’t the statement of a leader, it was the statement of someone who had given in.”
Meanwhile, Gov. Haley handled a very similar tragedy weeks ago and struck an even more stark contrast, Muzzio said.
“Her reaction, I went back and looked at it after looking at the Jindal remarks and they were totally different. I would have much rather been a South Carolinian than a Louisianan in terms of the leadership,” he said, because she handled it with emotion and empathy.
Jindal’s shock that the tragedy occurred was also jarring to many. “We never would’ve imagined it would’ve happened in Louisiana or Lafayette,” the governor told reporters hours after the shooting.
“The hypocrisy of the utter naiveté of him saying how it could have happen in Louisiana – what is he shocked about, they have the worst gun record in the country!” Muzzio said. Louisiana has the highest rate of gun deaths of any state in the country; four times as many people die in Louisiana from guns than they do in New York, which has some of the nation’s strictest gun laws.
“To be effective in a moment like this you’ve got to really be honest – Bobby Jindal does not want to acknowledge that there’s particular problem and neither does he want to admit – no Republican candidate wants to admit – that the proliferation of guns in this country is really the main reason we’re seeing events like this all the time,” former White House speech writer Jeff Shesol told msnbc. He helped pen Clinton’s address after the Columbine High School massacre.
As the weekend progressed, Jindal sought higher ground: he swore his state’s gun laws could have prevented the tragedy. “In Louisiana, we toughened our laws a couple of years ago,” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday. “If he had been involuntarily committed here, if he had tried to buy that gun here, he wouldn’t have been allowed to do that.”
But similar laws exist in Alabama, where the alleged gunman was somehow still able to legally purchase the handgun he used to injure 11 and kill two women. Louisiana did strengthen its gun laws in 2013 with regard to ensuring that mental health red flags are entered into the background check system, but avoiding the checks in the state is still simple. Guns can also be sold between family members or at gun shows without any background checks at all, creating large loopholes in the system Jindal says could have stopped this crime.
“I think every state should strengthen their laws,” Jindal said on Sunday. “Every state should make sure this information is being reported in the background system. We need to make sure that background system is working. Absolutely, in this instance, this man never should have been able to buy a gun.”
Perhaps Jindal’s strongest remarks came when he vowed to keep the virulently anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church members from protesting the funerals, blasting out an executive order vowing to throw them behind bars. “We’re gonna lock them up, we’re gonna arrest them, they shouldn’t try that in Louisiana,” he told CBS, with his hands on his hips. “They better not try that nonsense here.”
“That’s an easy one – because those people are crazy,” Muzzio said. Both Muzzio and Shelol said leadership is key at a moment like this.
“We don’t have a national religious leader and they are in a way filling that role in moments like this, touching on mortality and not just policy,” Shesol said. “It’s perfectly reasonable to look at presidential candidates to look at how effective they are in handling moments like this. It does tell you something in the character of leadership.”
Each recalled seeing the power of politicians as leaders amid tragedy: Muzzio recalled how Giuliani walked a young bride down the aisle just five days after the attacks.
“There was a human quality that was surprising to many but was absolutely not there in Jindal,” Muzzio said.
Shesol said he distinctly remembered watching Bill and Hillary Clinton speak with the families of the Columbine victims before a memorial. “I was really struck by how much it meant to these families, who had … experienced the worst sort of loss that anyone could. The presence of the president and what that meant to them in terms of the nation. It was a very powerful thing to understand,” he said. “A president’s place is maybe surprisingly important in these moments.”