Louisiana, the late A.J. Liebling discovered when he ventured south for New Yorker magazine a generation ago, is not Southern at all, but Middle Eastern, riven with intrigue and studded with the unexpected. He would relish the latest returns from the state that only a few years ago sent a Klansman to Congress.
Over the weekend, a nine-term black congressman whom the feds have been trying without much success to send to prison for bribery, stealing and other civic endeavors once merrily practiced in Louisiana, was turned out of Congress.
The author of the stunning upset is a mild-mannered Vietnamese-American immigration lawyer. He was brought to New Orleans from Saigon when he was 8. He asked his new constituents in his victory speech to excuse his broken English and forgive him for “being bashful.” He promised to work on his shyness when he gets to Washington, where bashful congressmen are rare and almost nobody cultivates mild manners (when they cultivate manners at all).
Anh Cao, who wants to be called Joe, effectively ended the career, at least for now, of William J. Jefferson, 61, a Harvard lawyer distinguished mostly for the circumstances of his arrest four years ago, when FBI agents, conducting a sting, found $90,000 in marked bills stored in his freezer. He’s awaiting trial in New Orleans on charges of bribery and public corruption. Several relatives were charged with him, inspiring a lot of the joshing (“the family that steals together stays together” and “the colder the cash, the hotter the party”) with which the natives traditionally celebrate great entertainers.
Mr. Cao still hasn’t quite measured the size of his unexpected luck. He ran for office only once before, finishing fifth in a field of six in a race for the state Legislature. He minded his mild manners against Mr. Jefferson, mindful that he was an Asian running against a black man in a New Orleans district that is 62 percent black, or was, before Hurricane Katrina dramatically shrank the city’s population and rendered such estimates suspect.
He rarely mentioned the incumbent’s stash of cold cash. He didn’t have to, since the congressman’s magic freezer have become a cherished part of Louisiana lore. When he won, he seemed to share Mr. Jefferson’s disappointment: “I know he went through two hard primaries. And that must have been hard. Never in my life did I think I could be a future congressman. The American dream is well and alive.”
Louisiana is lately particularly kind to immigrants and children of immigrants. But Mr. Cao, following in the path blazed by Gov. Bobby Jindal, should probably enjoy his good fortune now; local oddsmakers put the chances of his surviving the next election as between scant and scarce. When most black voters stayed home to savor Barack Obama’s success, Mr. Jefferson was bushwhacked by waiting Republicans. Considerably fewer than half of the 166,000 Orleanians who voted in November returned for the runoff.
The future looks considerably brighter for the other unlikely Louisiana success story. Mr. Jindal, only 38, not yet halfway through his first term as governor, already has his eye if not his hand on bigger things. He has been a success in Baton Rouge, getting an ethics code through the Legislature that should put a large and permanent dent in the festive attitude of the good-time Charlies who have dominated Louisiana politics. He’s called “the Republican Obama” for his eloquent talk of “reform” and “change,” and, like the president-elect, he has a funny name and an unfamiliar religious heritage. He was born to Hindu parents and converted to Roman Catholicism in high school. He testifies to his born-again faith often in Baptist and Pentecostal churches in the rural hard-shell counties in northern Louisiana, where Catholics are rare and Hindus an exotic curiosity.
He has the credentials to satisfy the educationist snobs (an Ivy League education at Brown, and his choice of Harvard Medical School or Yale Law School; he chose the law) and the views on the social issues (opposition to abortion, stem-cell research, same-sex marriage, gun control) to please the party base and the common folk.
Before all the votes were counted on Nov. 4, he hurried off to Iowa, where the caucuses of 2012 are barely three years away - merely the blink of a pundit’s eye - to see whether the cards are marked.
“It signals to activists ‘deal me in,’ ” says David Yepsen, the columnist for the Des Moines Register who has made a career of handicapping of the Iowa caucuses. “[His appearance] says, ‘I’m not sure I want to play, but let me see some cards.’ “
c Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.