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Can Bobby Jindal Drive Out the GOP's Demons?

Once hailed as his party's savior, the Louisiana governor has struggled along the road to the White House.

Illustration by Marc Burckhardt
Illustration by Marc Burckhardt

BOBBY JINDAL has never been one to wait. And so in November 2012, just one week after Barack Obama was reelected in a race the conservative establishment had long refused to believe it might lose, the 41-year-old governor of Louisiana stuck a knife in Mitt Romney's back.

The party's old guard was reeling and Jindal seemed poised to take advantage and confirm that he was a contender to lead the party in 2016. In winning a second gubernatorial term one year earlier, Jindal had crushed his top Democratic challenger by nearly 50 points, helping Republicans take control of the state Senate for the first time since Reconstruction. As Romney exited the national stage, Jindal was locking down the chairmanship of the Republican Governors Association (RGA), a perch that is generally considered a steppingstone to bigger things because of its access to a national network of conservative donors. And in his personal story and ethnic heritage, he offered a walking counterpoint to his party's demographic stagnation.

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Jindal's message was blunt: It was time for Republicans to "stop being the stupid party." Stop saying dumb things to reporters or constituents wielding cameras, or even at $50,000-a-plate fundraisers. Stop offering "dumbed-down" conservatism. Stop "reducing everything to mindless slogans." Stop defending big corporations. He tried the theme again two months later, at a Republican National Committee meeting: "It's time for a new Republican Party that talks like adults."

It was supposed to be a spotlight-seizing moment. But his rivals saw a chance to call out a weakness. As New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie put it, "I'm not going to be one of these people who goes around and calls our party stupid."

Then Jindal's signature second-term proposal, a dramatic overhaul of state taxes backed by leading conservative activists like Grover Norquist, died spectacularly at the hands of the Legislature. And this past November, Virginia Republicans blamed missteps by Jindal's RGA for Ken Cuccinelli's failure to seize the governorship. Adding insult to injury, it was time for Jindal to cede the chairmanship to Christie, who had just been reelected in a landslide. "Bobby Jindal's presidential campaign is over," one Virginia GOPer fumed.

Even as the Republican Party's great mentioners have largely moved on without him, Jindal is continuing on as if this is all part of the plan, quietly laying the groundwork for that long-expected White House run by staffing up his Washington-based nonprofit, America Next, and making regular trips outside of Louisiana to gather chits and speak at state party chicken dinners. It's "very obvious to everybody who has been paying attention" that Jindal is running, his home state Republican senator, David Vitter, said in December. Can a man whose political career has been built on a series of reinventions remake himself one more time?

Jindal was elected governor of Louisiana seven years ago at the age of 36 and anointed, almost immediately, as the Republican Party's golden boy. He seemed assured of a spot in every presidential discussion for as long as he wished; as a former Rhodes scholar and congressman and a conservative of color, he had just the kind of brain—and face—that the bigwigs wanted representing their party in the age of Obama.

"The question is not whether he'll be president, but when he'll be president," gushed Steve Schmidt, John McCain's presidential campaign manager, in 2008. "The next Ronald Reagan," pronounced Rush Limbaugh. Such praise was common: Few Republicans could match his résumé.

But midway through his second and final term in Baton Rouge, Jindal's future looks far less bright. Among conservative kingmakers and talk radio hosts, he's been eclipsed by a succession of shinier objects: Christie, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul.

"'If you cut that boy open from stem to stern, won't nothing bleed out but ambition'—that's what Bobby's all about."

The Republicans' recent history is littered with politicians who have been promoted with the hopes of countering the appeal of the nation's first black president. "When you see a candidate who has had success as an outside candidate, you look for the person on your side who most directly replicates them," says Schmidt. Michael Steele was elected to chair the party after a failed Senate run and one term as lieutenant governor of Maryland. Political novices Herman Cain and Ben Carson both earned presidential buzz, and no discussion of the appeal of Rubio or Cruz, both Senate newcomers, goes far without a nod to their Latino heritage.

Jindal has a better CV than anyone else in that crop, and one that would be the envy of most of his rumored 2016 rivals. But as governor, he has failed to match that résumé with the policy achievements you'd expect in a national candidate. As his last day in office draws closer, it's unclear just who remains passionate about Jindal trading up to the White House, or if he ever had the political acumen it takes to win a presidential nomination.

In Louisiana, his approval ratings have at times dropped below 40 percent, weighed down by frustration that he has spent too much time looking for his next job and not enough on the one he has now. In November, the congressional candidate Jindal selected for a special election he'd engineered lost by 20 points to a political novice running on a promise to, of all things, expand government-run health care.

"He's young, he's smart, he's a reformer, but he's very ambitious," says Buddy Roemer, a former governor whose son Chas is a Jindal ally who chairs Louisiana's board of education. "It's the 'ambitious' that's gotten in the way of the other things." Specifically, it has kept him away from the governor's office: The Associated Press calculated that he now spends one out of every five days out of state.

Yet Jindal's relentless drive may also be why Republicans are wary of counting him out. Clancy DuBos, a longtime columnist for the Gambit, a New Orleans weekly, recalls an old Louisiana lobbyist's characterization of the governor: "'If you cut that boy open from stem to stern, won't nothing bleed out but ambition'—that's what Bobby's all about."

Few things endear a politician to his base like a good conversion narrative. Jindal has an uncannily vivid one, developed in his memoir, in speeches, and in a series of little-noted religious essays published in the 1990s. The effect is a sort of conservative counterpoint to Barack Obama's coming-of-age story—with none of the drug use and only some of the disaffection.

It's tough to distinguish Jindal's faith journey from his political one, mostly because he himself doesn't. His parents came to Baton Rouge from Punjab when his mother was three months pregnant. Born Piyush Jindal, by kindergarten he had asked to be called Bobby, after hearing the name on Brady Bunch reruns. The family raised him in their Hindu faith, worshipping weekly and attending services at neighbors' homes. Then, in middle school, his best friend, Kent, told him he was going to hell, setting off years of spiritual questioning. Jindal read the Bible by flashlight in his closet, an experience he has compared to that of early Christians who practiced under threat of persecution; wanting to weigh his options, he asked his parents for a copy of the Bhagavad Gita.

But Jindal found Hinduism lacking in absolutes, and after watching a grainy film depicting the crucifixion in a back room at Kent's evangelical church, Jindal gave himself up to Christ. For a year, he kept his conversion secret from his parents, sneaking off to worship behind their backs. When he finally came out as a high school senior, he'd already been admitted to Brown University; worried that his family would disown him and refuse to cover the tuition, he'd lined up a job and a scholarship to Louisiana State as backup. His parents relented, albeit reluctantly; they refused to attend his baptism and spent the next decade praying for him to come back to their faith.

Providence, Rhode Island, seemed to Jindal an unfamiliar and often hostile world. As a strong conservative—his high school sweetheart had convinced him of the evils of abortion the night of their first date—he felt like a curiosity on a campus where classmates spelled "womyn" with a "y" and an orientation week exercise asked straight students to pretend they were gay.

But then Jindal found his niche. He threw himself into his pre-med classes and joined the Brown Christian Fellowship and Campus Crusade for Christ, a tight-knit group of committed believers.

Though his childhood explorations of Christianity were alongside charismatic Protestants, Jindal now found himself drawn to the structure and absolutism of Catholicism, taking on Latin and poring over the complete volumes of Thomas Aquinas. After a campus priest plucked him from the pews to light an altar candle, Jindal decided to be confirmed in the church.

It was not to be a private belief: Jindal felt a moral imperative to evangelize, and classmates recall he was an active salesman for the Lord. He had embraced a traditionalist vision of Catholicism out of step with the modern church, one in which evil was something to be confronted not just spiritually, but physically. And it wasn't long until he saw an opportunity to put his faith into action: In a 1994 essay for the New Oxford Review, one of a dozen pieces he would write for small Catholic journals about his conversion, he described participating in an exorcism of a classmate he called "Susan." Jindal and Susan had shared a platonic friendship, but their relationship had frayed in recent months. Susan had begun having mysterious visions. She was also being treated for skin cancer. Visitors to her apartment reported a faint odor of sulfur.

"My friends were chanting, 'Satan, I command you to leave this woman,'" Jindal recalled. "Others exhorted all 'demons to leave in the name of Christ.'"

The church hierarchy sanctions exorcisms only with the blessing of a bishop. (A 2000 estimate put the global figure at fewer than 600 a year.) But Jindal didn't ask a priest or any other church official for help, he explained, out of fear: What would it mean for his faith if he discovered the church was powerless to help his friend?

The conflict came to a head at a hurried evening intervention. "Kneeling on the ground, my friends were chanting, 'Satan, I command you to leave this woman,'" Jindal recalled. "Others exhorted all 'demons to leave in the name of Christ.'" Finally, another student showed up with a crucifix and cast the spirit away.

Jindal and his friends never fully came to terms with what had happened to Susan. Maybe she had invited "pagan influences" into her life by living with a Hmong roommate. Or perhaps it was an offering her mother once made at a temple in Southeast Asia. Or maybe demons had nothing to do with her problems.

"We were college students who were playing with atomic material and really didn't know what we were doing," recalls Michael Tso, a fellow member of the Brown Christian Fellowship. And it wasn't their only confrontation with evil; another acquaintance claimed that a demon had slashed her arms. "It was probably the most intense experience that I've ever experienced," Tso says.

There was an upshot to the episode: Susan saw the light. Three years after he first wrote about the night with the crucifix, Jindal revisited his demons in an essay for This Rock, a conservative Catholic journal. Though Susan was now "Agnes," he left no doubt they were the same person. Jindal, by then a political rock star, painstakingly filled in details of their relationship, from a chance meeting on the way to Mass on his first Sunday in Providence to the mysteries—and men—that came between them. "Agnes' confirmation was the most incredible and intense day of my life, second only to my own baptism," he wrote. The dance with the devil brought them closer than they'd ever been, and after she'd come into the light they emerged as a committed couple, traveling to Vienna and the south of France, and making a pilgrimage to Rome. "Few outsiders will ever understand what happened between us," he wrote. "Agnes was my hero, and I suppose I was hers."

Demonic confrontations aside, Jindal thrived at Brown, earning top marks in his pre-med track and exploring health care policy issues in his thesis and as a summer intern for Rep. Jim McCrery (R-La.). After graduating early at age 21, he put off his dreams of becoming a neurosurgeon, turning down offers from both Yale's and Harvard's medical schools to take a Rhodes scholarship.

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