The first thing you notice about Bobby Jindal—everyone says this—is how damn young he looks. Stick him next to John McCain, however, and his appearance skews toward the pubescent. It's a sun-blasted, sweat-stained late-April day in New Orleans, and Jindal—102 days into his term as the governor of Louisiana, and just 36 years into a life that's looking increasingly politically charmed—is walking beside McCain down Caffin Avenue in the city's blighted Lower Ninth Ward. The neighborhood's few remaining residents—easily outnumbered by the hordes of National Guardsmen and political aides and the reporters sequestered in the flatbeds of two National Guard trucks—are out on their porches, with arms folded, observing this odd promenade. McCain's giant, gleaming bus ("the Straight," as his aides call it) looks like an alien spacecraft idling beside the scruffy Caffin Avenue median.
If that implies that McCain is an alien here, well, so be it. This is stop four on McCain's "forgotten places" tour, after Appalachia, Ohio's Rust Belt, and Alabama's Black Belt. These are not the typical bases that Republicans touch on the campaign diamond. It's as if McCain accidentally swapped date books with John Edwards, and it shows: The senator looks unsteady, almost sheepish, as he passes through the water-wrecked landscape, past weedy lots where shotgun houses stood before Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters crumbled them. McCain pauses in front of Fats Domino's renovated house, a one-story speck of hope amid the debris-strewn streets. The rumor on the press trucks is that Domino is home but refuses to come out. Whatever the situation, there's an awkward pause, and McCain, surrounded by his massive coterie, looks a little lost, a little overwhelmed, a little old.
Not Jindal. Jindal could get carded buying a six-pack. And Jindal, he doesn't know how to pause. Throughout the day he's been hanging behind McCain and maintaining a running—no, sprinting—dialogue with a Ninth Ward minister and other locals. When the tour ends at a Catholic church on St. Claude Avenue, Jindal continues to hang back as McCain addresses the traveling press corps and goes straight for the headline. "Never again," McCain says, then repeats the phrase for emphasis: "Never again will a disaster of this nature be handled in the terrible and disgraceful way in which it was handled."
It's strong, stinging stuff McCain's hurling at his own party leader and president, and it's amplified by the evocative setting, yet the focus moves swiftly to Jindal. It's the day's third question, shouted from the back: Will Jindal be the senator's vice-presidential pick? "Governor Jindal is one of the great governors of the United States," McCain says. "I'm honored to have his friendship, and I will rely on Governor Jindal for many, many things in the future, when I am president."
Afterward Jindal boards a helicopter to fly to Monroe, in Louisiana's northeast corner. The morning outing with McCain was a glitzy aberration; this trip, to announce $22 million in funding for a youth correctional facility, an aquifer reclamation project, and local highway improvements, is the real work governors do, the grimy nuts and bolts of the job. In a cramped room in the Swanson Center for Youth, standing before a white lattice festooned with plastic ivy and a laminated sign reading WELCOME GOVERNOR JINDAL, he outlines his spending proposals before a crowd of sheriffs' deputies, small-town mayors, and youth-facility staffers. It's meaty, complex, intensely local politics, and many of the people it will affect are gathered in the room. But when Jindal opens the floor to questions, there is just one:
Thank you, Governor, yes, can you tell us if you will be John McCain's running mate in November?
Louisiana is accustomed to exporting itself to the rest of America: its cuisine, its music, its old-timey cocktails, its Mardi Gras snapshots. But not its politicians. The last time America showed an appetite for a Louisiana politico was in 1848, when General Zachary Taylor won the White House. The legendary governor Huey Long wrote a fictionalized memoir optimistically titled My First Days in the White House but was assassinated in 1935 before it was published. For decades Louisiana has played court jester to the national political scene, sending forth a series of tragicomic flameouts: Witness current Republican U.S. senator David Vitter and his predilection for D.C. escorts, and current Democratic U.S. congressman William Jefferson, who was busted with $90,000 in cash bribes stuffed in his freezer. In the nineties, when a gubernatorial runoff pitted Ku Klux Klansman David Duke against the perennially indicted Edwin Edwards, the ubiquitous bumper stickers read VOTE FOR THE CROOK. And they meant it. "We like our politicians like many of our cultural dishes," says Donna Brazile, the Democratic strategist and native New Orleanian. "Spicy."
If Bobby Jindal, now 37, who pinballed from a gubernatorial-cabinet position at the age of 24 to two terms in Congress and then to the governorship, can't be called your typical Louisiana politician, it's because he's not your typical Louisianan. He doesn't care much, for instance, about food. His musical tastes run toward middle-of-the-road FM rock—Clapton, the Beatles—though, really, whatever's on the radio will do. He doesn't drink alcohol—an anomaly in a state where, as the old joke goes, cirrhosis of the liver gets listed on death certificates as "natural causes"—or even coffee, Louisiana's second official liquid. In a state so devoted to hunting and fishing that its license plates read sportsman's paradise, Jindal's chosen sport is tennis. But something else sets Jindal apart in this deep-fried southern state: His first name is Piyush, not Robert, and he's the son of Indian immigrants who arrived in the United States just six months before his birth.
"Being the son of an immigrant is almost like being a convert to Americanism," says Jindal, sitting behind his desk in his handsome, high-ceilinged fourth-floor office in the state capitol building in Baton Rouge. Jindal is slight and fine-featured, with an aquiline nose and a heavy, beetling brow, and he speaks with a pure southern accent, humid and twangy. He's talking about a subject he broaches so infrequently that some critics say he evades it: his cultural roots. "As a kid, I would roll my eyes at my dad when he'd say 'Be grateful you are an American,'" he says. "I'd think, 'What else would I be?' But I think I'm close enough to my father's experience now that, no matter what happens in life, I think, 'Boy, I'm lucky I'm here.'"
Amar and Raj Jindal, the governor's parents, emigrated from the Punjab, in northern India, to Baton Rouge so that Raj could pursue graduate studies in nuclear physics at Louisiana State University. Amar was an engineer. Piyush was born June 10, 1971, and remained Piyush until he was 4 years old. That's when he renamed himself Bobby, after his favorite character on The Brady Bunch. It was his first step toward ingratiating himself into the local culture—a fitful process that would involve his rejecting his parents' religion and politics.
But not their work ethic. Amar was a strict taskmaster, and Bobby was expected to excel. "When my father would say 'You have great potential,' it wasn't a compliment," Jindal says. It meant there was room for more effort. Effort, however, is something Jindal has never failed to give. He entered high school at the age of 13, and in his spare time he launched a local computer newsletter, a retail candy business, and a mail-order software company. "He was very precocious, as you can imagine," says Mary Lee Guillot, his principal at Baton Rouge Magnet High School. "What you see now is what you saw then—focused, feet on the ground, always knew where he was going."
When Bobby Jindal was 12, a Southern Baptist friend named Kent gave him a paperback Bible for Christmas. Jindal was disappointed, not least because the Bible was engraved with his name and thus unreturnable. "I was raised in a strong Hindu culture, attended weekly pujas, or ceremonial rites, and read the Vedic scriptures," Jindal wrote in a 1993 article in America, a Jesuit magazine, one of many religious essays he published in the early nineties. "I considered myself anti-Christian," he wrote in another piece; elsewhere, he confided that he thought Christians worshipped fish ("in the same way that many Westerners think Hindus worship cows"). The Bible went into a closet, and might have remained there had Jindal not sneaked away with a girl from a high-school dance at a Baton Rouge hotel.
Jindal and the girl, Kathy, slipped off to the rooftop and talked about their futures. She aimed to be a Supreme Court justice, she told him, so that she could stop people from "killing babies." Her passion astonished Jindal. "While she could not reply to any one of my arguments for abortion," he later wrote, "I could not help but be amazed by her genuine compassion and innocence. . . . Kathy's sincere convictions showed me an aspect of Christianity I had never encountered before."
Thus began Jindal's conversion to Catholicism, an epic process into which he funneled all his trademark energies, intellectual and otherwise. "I even learned bits of Latin, Greek and Hebrew," he later wrote. In the same closet to which he had once consigned Kent's Bible, Jindal now studied its verses by flashlight, away from his parents' eyes. "I was probably the first teenager who ever told his parents he was going to a party so that he could sneak off to church," he wrote. "My parents were infuriated by my conversion. [They] blamed themselves for being bad parents, blamed me for being a bad son and blamed evangelists for spreading dissension."
This family turmoil—dramatic enough for Jindal to liken himself to "the earliest Christians hiding from government persecution"—is glossed over in accounts of the governor's conversion. (His parents have never spoken publicly about it.) Jindal doesn't deny the tumult but says his parents have come around to his Catholicism. "I think it's something they now respect, they support, and they encourage," he says. "They were at the baptisms of my children, and they were at my wedding." (His wife, Supriya, who was also raised as a Hindu, converted after their 1997 marriage. "For me, it was a spiritual journey," she says. "I think it was very much an intellectual journey for him.")
"You have to put yourself in their position," Jindal says of his parents. "I think their initial skepticism was rooted in the belief that maybe this was teenage rebellion. Was this just an act of a child rejecting something because his parents identified with it—or was it deeper?"
Indian-American critics of the governor, like Ramesh Rao, a communications professor at Longwood University in Virginia who used to serve on the executive council of the Hindu American Foundation, see nascent political motives in Jindal's conversion. "Was the 16-year-old Bobby Jindal already so determined that he wanted to appeal to his classmates?" Rao asks. "No one really knows much about that transformation. He'd make for a fascinating psychological treatise."
But Jindal's own writings on the subject—extensive, and largely overlooked—suggest that there's a fierce depth to his adopted religious beliefs. Jindal entered Brown University at the age of 17, as a biology and public-policy major intent on a career in medicine, and it was there in Providence, Rhode Island, that he was baptized. While at Brown, a friend of Jindal's—whom he called Susan in his 1994 account—confided to him that a lump on her scalp had been found to be cancerous and that she was seeing visions and was plagued by the sulfurous odors traditionally associated with demons. Later, during a University Christian Fellowship prayer meeting on campus, Susan fell to the floor and "started thrashing about," Jindal wrote, "as if in some kind of seizure." She was screaming his name, but Jindal stayed back while the other UCF members pinned her down and chanted "Satan, I command you to leave this woman." One brandished a crucifix. "It appeared as if we were observing a tremendous battle between the Susan we knew and loved and some strange evil force," he wrote. After a protracted struggle, Susan's fits subsided. This amateur exorcism, Jindal wrote, seemed to work wonders. When surgeons removed the lump, they "found no traces of cancerous cells." Susan "claimed she had felt healed after the group prayer," he wrote. "The physician's improbable explanation that the biopsy may have removed all the cancerous tissue is no less far-fetched." Though the cancer was gone, Jindal's concerns over Susan's possession weren't: "With holy water and blessed crucifixes, I have even given her physical protection from the de-mons that have only once reappeared, and then for a mere moment."
If Jindal severed ties with the religion of his parents, he also broke, less rancorously, with their politics. "They were Democrats," he says, noting that they later gravitated toward the GOP. "I don't think they thought long or hard about it." Like many other young conservatives, Jindal credits his rightward tilt to seeing Ronald Reagan on TV. "People's tastes in music, food, and clothing get fixed at some age," he says. "I came of age during the 1980s, and the political figure that dominated the eighties was Ronald Reagan. He was very popular, so it was easy to identify with a lot of the things he stood for."
As an undergrad at Brown, Jindal interned for Jim McCrery, a Republican congressman from Shreveport. One week into the job, Jindal requested something substantive to work on. Annoyed, McCrery asked him to formulate a solution to a problem considered intractable by Beltway insiders: Medicare. "He just grinned," McCrery recalls. "I expected never to see him again." Two weeks later, Jindal plopped a thick manuscript on McCrery's desk: Medicare, solved (at least to Jindal's thinking). Jindal's policy analysis, McCrery says, "was excellent." Especially for a 20-year-old.
By 1994, Jindal had been to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar and had taken a lucrative job as a consultant in Washington, D.C. But he was already restless. He called McCrery to recommend himself for Louisiana's secretary of health and hospitals, a cabinet-level position involving oversight of 40 percent of the state budget. "Remember," McCrery says, "Bobby was like 23 years old. So I asked if he'd consider a deputy position." Jindal said no. A year later, McCrery got Jindal an audience with Republican governor Mike Foster. "When they told me he was 24, I wasn't very interested," Foster says. But in person Jindal won him over, and Foster hired him on the spot. "Most people who border on genius," Foster says, "they're not too personable. But he's personable."
That combustible mixture—high-caliber smarts and higher-caliber ambition—combined with a smooth, polished demeanor, has fueled Jindal's rocket-ship rise through Louisiana politics. Jindal calls himself a "policy wonk at heart"; ask him about an issue and you'll hear all 31 points of a 31-point plan. "I want to be the most boring but most effective governor," he says. "My wife says I have the boring part down." But it's a decidedly (Bill) Clintonesque brand of wonkiness: suffused with the gleam of personality and devoid of lecture-hall drone. The only hiccup in Jindal's career came in 2003, when, after parlaying a $400 million deficit at Health and Hospitals into a $220 million surplus, he launched his first campaign for governor. "We had no polls, no fund-raising, no experience," Jindal says. Those weren't his only disadvantages: "He was Ivy League-educated, and he'd spent almost his entire career in government," says Jeffrey Sadow, a political science professor at LSU-Shreveport. "And he looked different from just about everyone in the state." Jindal's campaign tried to mitigate that last point by printing bubbas for bobby bumper stickers, but the redneck vote went elsewhere and Jindal lost, albeit narrowly. Only a few weeks later, he relocated his family to the New Orleans suburb of Kenner and announced he was running for the open congressional seat there. He won 78 percent of the vote.
"That includes David Duke's old district," Foster notes, dismissing suggestions that Jindal's ethnicity is a factor. Jindal rarely plays up his heritage, despite the fact that 40 percent of his campaign contributions for the 2003 election came from Indian-Americans in Louisiana and elsewhere. "He's kept his distance from the Indian-American community," Rao says. "Not one mention of maybe the music his parents listened to, or the food that he ate growing up—nothing."
As a political tactic, this has its benefits. "My grandparents, they're real old-school, and they didn't vote for Jindal the first time around, because of his ethnicity," a self-proclaimed racist ("I can't help it, man, that's the way I am") told me in the bar of McCain's Baton Rouge hotel. But it's apparent that many "old-school" white voters have set aside their qualms about sending a brown-skinned man to the governor's mansion—both the self-described racist and his grandparents cast their ballots for Jindal in 2007. "I'll tell you," he said, explaining his vote, "Jindal's just not your typical African-American."
What he is, for the moment, is a juggernaut. RECent statewide polls show him with a whopping 77 percent approval rating. His focus has been on streamlining the state government's dysfunctional machinery and passing ethics reforms. It's not sexy stump-speech material, but even a Democratic firebrand like Brazile admits that Louisiana is benefiting from Jindal: "Bobby might prove that boring or bland is better," she says. It's difficult, in fact, to find anyone who will talk trash about the governor. Calls to Democratic lawmakers and New Orleans' normally voluble mayor, Roy Nagin, went unreturned. The Louisiana Democratic Party responded to the request to discuss the governor with a curious preemptive "no comment." As Sadow says, "If he's got an Achilles heel he hasn't revealed it yet."
"If there is a criticism of Bobby," says Mike Foster, "it's that he hasn't stayed in a job long enough." Which brings us back to John McCain, and Jindal's inclusion on the senator's short list of potential running mates. Pundits suggest Jindal would be the ideal choice to neutralize Obama, both because of his youth and because of the fact that he, too, offers voters the chance to pull the lever for a barrier-breaking candidate. Jindal would also prop up McCain's conservative bona fides: He's opposed to abortion even in cases involving incest or rape, supports teaching intelligent design, voted in Congress for a constitutional amendment to define marriage as a heterosexual institution, voted to seal the U.S.-Mexico border with a fence, and has been a staunch supporter of the war in Iraq. It's easy to foresee his becoming, to crib from Robert Penn Warren, "a boy wonder breathing brimstone" on the national stage. So easy, in fact, that it seems more a matter of when than if. "[He's] the model for Republican victory," Rush Limbaugh has said, calling Jindal "the next Ronald Reagan."
Predictably, Jindal is brushing off the VP talk ("I'm sincere," he says, "I've got the job that I want"), but his actions—flying to Los Angeles to appear on The Tonight Show, weekending with McCain and the other VP short-listees at McCain's Arizona ranch—show he's interested. Some say this is where his ambition may get the better of him. "If he wanted to destroy himself politically," Mike Foster says, "he would take that job. The people of Louisiana would be extremely disappointed." Sadow concurs, saying it would be "inconceivable" that Jindal would accept an invitation to run with McCain. "There hasn't been a losing VP candidate who's come back to win the presidency since 1920," he says.
If washing out is on Jindal's mind, he's not revealing it. "My biggest fear is we'll run out of time before we get everything done," he says, as we fly back to Baton Rouge from Monroe in the governor's helicopter. "These are generational decisions we're making. This state has the opportunity to make massive changes." He speaks of capital-C change with such optimistic fervor that I warn him he sounds like Barack Obama. With Louisiana below us, a vernal sheet of green threaded with muddy rivers, Jindal grins at the comparison. "Look," he replies, "I disagree with many of his positions, but I still get goose bumps listening to him speak. He's bringing a very positive message to the race."
If Jindal, whether of his accord or McCain's, doesn't end up on the Republican ticket, maybe this is the matchup to imagine: Bobby Jindal, the brown-skinned son of immigrants, running against Barack Obama, another brown-skinned son of an immigrant, in 2012. Jindal launches into the story of meeting Obama at the State of the Union speech in 2005. The senator introduced himself to Jindal, then a congressman. "I know who you are," Jindal replied. Immediately, Obama offered some flattering words and Jindal responded teasingly, "Yeah, but you won't say that to the TV cameras." "Yes I would," the senator said, calling his bluff. "Why don't you do a campaign commercial for me?" said Jindal, playing along. "He said 'I'll do it.' You just can't fake that kind of earnestness," says Bobby Jindal, sounding awfully earnest himself.