Not long ago, Gov. Haley Barbour surfaced as the surprise winner of an informal poll that placed him as the leading Republican presidential nominee for 2008.
In the wake of arguably the nation’s worst natural disaster, while New Orleans battles for peace and order amid chaos, death and destruction, and Gov. Kathleen Blanco continues to dodge criticism for being slow to react to the disastrous situation, Barbour is emerging as national executive branch material. He has endured a catastrophe comparable in scale to the one that catapulted then New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani to national favor following the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
Barbour has “come across as a Giuliani-type leader,” University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato told The Associated Press (AP). “He’s risen to the challenge and he clearly has the leadership gene.”
The ultimate stage
After touring a debris-strewn section of Biloxi, President George W. Bush applauded Barbour’s position on civil disorder for “following through … with clear rules.” Marty Wiseman, director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government, told the AP the situation provides Barbour “the ultimate stage to perform on.”
Barbour’s sudden elevation to the national spotlight has attracted a smattering of vocal critics, such as staunch Democrat supporter Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who blogged HuffingtonPost.com, “As Hurricane Katrina dismantles Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, it’s worth recalling the central role that Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour played in derailing the Kyoto Protocol and kiboshing President Bush’s iron-clad campaign promise to regulate CO2.”
Under the August 29 posting, “For They That Sow the Wind Shall Reap the Whirlwind,” Kennedy even hinted that Hurricane Katrina’s last-minute detour through Mississippi was, in part, God’s payback: “Perhaps it was Barbour’s memo that caused Katrina, at the last moment, to spare New Orleans and save its worst flailings for the Mississippi Coast.”
Soon after reviewing the damage and expediting federal aid to Mississippi, a largely rural and poor state that suffered unprecedented damage to its 90-mile coastline and 100 miles inland, the former Republican National Committee chairman and dominant Washington lobbyist established a participatory and collaborative Governor’s Commission, similar to the one set up by Gov. John Bell Williams following Hurricane Camille in 1969. To head the commission, Barbour tapped Jackson philanthropist Jim Barksdale, a FedEx executive and Netscape CEO who established the Barksdale Reading Institute as part of his goal to stamp out illiteracy.
At press time, Barbour and Barksdale were selecting commission members, who will be charged with submitting a report to the governor by year-end.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do very quickly,” said Barksdale. “We want to be listening, to be aware of what the people in the local communities want. They are the ones that are going to have most of the ideas and are going to have to implement these ideas. But we do believe we can be of assistance to them in giving them suggestions, ideas, and models from other cities that have rebuilt … things to consider, perhaps some new ways of doing things. Those ideas can lead to a renaissance of the Gulf Coast and make this an opportunity as much as anything.”
The commission will include subgroups organized by geography and by industry, such as agriculture and forestry. South Mississippi’s timber business suffered billions of dollars of damage. Eighty percent of timber in George County was affected by the 150 mile-per-hour storm winds. Timber is the county’s leading agricultural crop with an annual harvest valued at more than $15 million.
“I think everybody agrees that we’ve turned a corner,” said Barbour. “We’re well into cleanup and we’re focused on the future all over Mississippi.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at firstname.lastname@example.org.