The bell tolls for David Vitter. It also tolls for everyone at St. Francis Xavier Church in Old Metairie. It’s a reverent sound, and the beginning of Mass. Wooden pews are folded up, thin pages are flipped over and back, and whispers from the congregation become hushed. This is where Vitter, Louisiana’s junior senator, feels at home.
Still, his fellow parishioners can’t help but stare or take quick glances. It’s all just curious, like seeing the local weatherman grocery shopping or spotting Deuce McAllister in front of the line at Burger King. Observers take note when Vitter drapes an arm around his wife or stands to serve as the morning lector. Just like he did on a regular basis before being linked in 2007 to Deborah Jeane Palfrey, the D.C. Madam.
Despite the shame of the sex scandal, he still shows his face. He clings to his old role in the parish. This, as much as anything Vitter does these days, is another exercise in Vitter’s version of a mea culpa, the first leg of his transformation from political outcast to a Republican redeemed.
Louisiana’s citizenry has seen a performance like this before, albeit more personal and revealing the first time around. It’s been about 20 years since Pentecostal preacher Jimmy Swaggart tearfully told his Baton Rouge congregation that he was sorry for dallying with a prostitute. Swaggart’s public confession and apology were delivered skillfully and with great public remorse, but without actually providing details of the transgression. “I have sinned against you,” a tearful Swaggart said at the time.
When Vitter had to issue his own statement two years ago about his role in the D.C. Madam scandal, he took a strikingly different path. Rather than face the cameras and beg for forgiveness with tears in his eyes, as Swaggart did, Vitter issued a press release acknowledging “a very serious sin in my past.” He didn’t even go through his staff to send out the press release, but rather issued it himself late on a Monday night — when he realized the story was going to break the next day anyway. When he finally got caught on camera, Vitter apologized, didn’t mention The Deed and got out of there. Fast. “This was a very serious sin in my past for which I am, of course, completely responsible,” Vitter said. No tears. No begging for forgiveness.
While Swaggart has been able to hold together a few shreds of his evangelical empire, Vitter’s fate remains in political limbo. Nearly 20 months have passed since he was outed, yet Vitter remains solidly woven into the fabric of American pop culture, serving as the butt of jokes on late-night talk shows and as fodder for scandal countdowns on basic cable.
But Vitter, probably more so than anyone else, believes firmly that Louisiana’s voters are forgiving nonetheless — and, he hopes, easily distracted. Campaign commercials bankrolled by Democrats will not be kind. It’s doubtful they’ve forgotten anything, from Palfrey committing suicide in the face of jail time to Vitter reportedly receiving phone calls from her escort service during roll call votes.
As for Vitter’s strategy, it’s all about diversionary tactics. He has to overshadow the obvious and rebrand himself.
In that regard, Vitter has taken a guerrilla-style approach to resurrecting his public image. Expect to see his name tattooed to any high-profile issues that move through the Senate. When the auto bailout vote raged last year, he described it as “ass-backwards” from the Senate floor and threatened to filibuster, grabbing national headlines in the process. During the confirmation hearings of Secretary of State nominee Hillary Clinton last week, Vitter stole the spotlight again with tough questions about conflicts of interest and ended up being the sole dissenting vote when Clinton was confirmed by a bipartisan 16-1 vote.
With regard to Christian conservatives, Vitter isn’t just talking the talk and leaning on faith. He hopes to win them back with policy. Based on legislation he has in the hopper for this year, he’s going to protect the American flag, end abortion, further public prayer, advance home schooling, curb illegal immigration, enforce the death penalty and get rid of drugs.
From within his own party, there are influential leaders pushing Secretary of State Jay Dardenne to challenge Vitter in the GOP primary. On the Democratic side, Congressman Charlie Melancon is the clear frontrunner if he wants it, but it’s becoming increasingly unlikely that he’ll give up his House seniority. As of last week, he wasn’t returning calls about 2010. Former Gov. Kathleen Blanco wants to recruit a Democrat, but there’s a shortage of serious names floating to the top. Vitter scoffs at the notion of Blanco running herself, smugly telling WWL-TV that he would write a check to her campaign to get her to run.
Ultimately, Democrats will push one theme to the forefront: sex. Operatives have been hard at work trying to find an adult film star to qualify for the race. Hopes were initially high about landing Adult Video News award winner Stormy Daniels, a Baton Rouge area native, but, like Melancon, her prospects are dwindling. Democrats may have to settle for a stripper or, um, other sex worker. But the project is in the pipeline. “It’s going to happen,” one operative says. “It’s getting all wired up now.”
The sideshow candidate will make it all the more difficult for Vitter to avoid questions about his infidelity. Or, she could trivialize the affair and inadvertently help Vitter. Thus far, he has taken cues from his top supporter, Gov. Bobby Jindal, who has made an art form of dodging sensitive questions. But, while Jindal displays Ali-like footwork, Vitter’s driver once loudly backed his car into a “No Parking” sign trying to avoid pesky reporters. For now, Jindal is giving Vitter much needed help in fund raising.
Many hope that Vitter will never be redeemed. They may do well to remember that Vitter, the Lone Wolf of Louisiana Politics, doesn’t seek literal redemption, just political indulgence in the form of another term in the U.S. Senate. For now, he is atoning for his “very serious sin” by simply staying in the game and enduring the humiliation. Recent events suggest that, soon enough, he will go on the offensive. Whether voters choose to forgive him remains an open question
MAY 17 Here's a column from James Gill, this time in the Advocate. Gill, who has jumped ship from the Picayune, writes about the absurdity of dueling polls in this post. The numbers are so wildly different, it is obvious that both sides are "cooking the books," he writes. In particular, he looks at Sen. Mary Landrieu, and how her recent actions in DC have been received by those polled. Gill's acerbic, amusing prose is a welcome addition to a paper so conservative as to be occasionally lacking in personality.
MAY 17 Blogger Tom Aswell continues delivering bombshells about the state education department and Gov. Jindal's education "reform" efforts. In this post, he reports that students in the Shreveport area have been signed up for a charter school without their knowledge or consent. Most interesting to Aswell is how this Texas-based charter (with ties to GOP types) got the personal student information it has, if the students didn't give it.
MAY 17 This post by JR Ball in the Baton Rouge Business Report is an interesting tongue-in-cheek look at recent Baton Rouge economic development efforts. Among the items he examines is the idea that gaining a Costco makes BR a "world-class city." (Really? All you need is a different brand of Sam's? MK!) This effort, and other recent ones, are all built on the taxpayer's back, with tax zones, tax incentives and tax rebates, Ball writes.
MAY 17 Blogger CB Forgotston is critical of the legislature's reliance on a revenue-estimating committee's decision to include projected tax amnesty income in this year's forecast. That's a problem, CB posts, because the deadline for these people to pay their taxes is June 30, 2014. So when do you think these people who haven't paid taxes in years are going to pay their taxes? Surely not before June 30, and that means the money won't be there for this year's budget, he argues.
MAY 17 Here's an interesting blog out of California by a Hollywood writer, attorney and academic named Brian Alan Lane. He blogs about higher ed, and was a whistle-blower in a scandal over false credentials. In this post, he takes aim at LSU's new top dog, King Alexander. It's convoluted and a little confusing, but it sure makes Alexander a lot more interesting than he was yesterday.
MAY 17 Blogger Robert Mann writes about the LSU Board's refusal to allow Dr. Fred Cerise to testify before the legislature about Gov. Jindal's plan to close down all the state's charity hospitals and dump the poor on the private system. It's hard to imagine anyone more qualified than Cerise to testify about that, so why would anyone try to prevent him doing so? Mann thinks it is because the powers that be aren't interested in hearing any truth about the plan.
MAY 17 This post on the Louisiana Sinkhole Bugle, a blog that notes developments in the Bayou Corne and Jefferson Island salt domes, talks about a proposed expansion of the salt dome storage under Lake Peigneur in Iberia Parish. Residents are working against it for several reasons, including two biggies: the sinkhole disaster in Bayou Corne and the continuing, unexplained bubbling on the surface of the Lake.
MAY 17 NOLA police arrested more people Thursday accused of either being involved in the Mother's Day shooting or hiding the suspect afterward, this Gambit story reports. The NOLA police chief said he suspects the whole thing was gang-related and throws out a challenge to the gangs: he's got informants now, he says, and he knows a lot more than the gangs want him to know. The people who live in the neighborhoods terrorized by gangs are ready to talk, he says.
Is it a crime for citizens to photograph, video, or take notes of a police officer in the line of duty, or a right protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution? Locally, such activity, as witnessed recently, will at the very least result in a night spent behind bars.
David Calhoun and Elizabeth “EB” Brooks are the first two employees of Lafayette Central Park Inc., the nonprofit charged with turning Lafayette Consolidated Government’s 100-acre Johnston Street Horse Farm property into a passive public park. Calhoun was named executive director, and Brooks is director of planning and design.
Episcopal School of Acadiana’s Dr. Joshua Caffery, chair of the school’s English Department, is headed to Washington, D.C., and the Library of Congress as the latest winner of the Alan Lomax Fellowship in Folklife Studies.