Monday, October 10, 2005
Gov. Haley Barbour's favorite political memento is a framed sequence of four photos of himself trading off-color jokes with his former boss, Ronald Reagan. In the first photo, the young White House aide is seen telling the president a joke, "the one about the three couples joining the church," Barbour says. He adds, rightly, that the joke is not suitable for the newspaper -- its punch line features one of the couples doing something enormously inappropriate in the frozen-food section at Kroger.
In the third picture, Reagan is saying, "Haley, have I ever told you the one about the two Episcopal preachers?"
This joke can't go in the newspaper, either.
The last photo captures Reagan and Barbour, post-punch line, convulsing in laughter. It is inscribed, "Dear Haley, did you hear the one about . . ."
"One reason Reagan liked me was that I wasn't afraid to tell jokes in front of him," the governor of Mississippi says with a mark of pride that reflects an essential part of his political personality, even during these most unfunny days in post-Katrina Mississippi. The former lobbyist and Republican National Committee chairman has long cherished the recreational facets of politics -- the jokes, the stories, the adventures. He is a throwback to a time when politicians would refer to their friends -- on the record -- as "drinking buddies."
Barbour, 57, has many "drinking buddies." And has smoked "some great cigars" with Rudy Giuliani and shared a "lotta laughs, lotta good times" with George W. Bush, or "Junior" as he used to call him. He goes back to the Young Republicans with Karl Rove, the Reagan days with Andrew Card, and is well-known among an A-list of senators, congressmen, governors and lobbyists. "Haley's got more friends than anyone I know," says lobbyist Don Fierce.
Which counts for . . . exactly what when you're dealing in body counts?
It would seem, on the surface, an odd fit: the consummate Republican Party animal comforting widows in front of wrecked homes. Katrina killed 221 of Barbour's constituents, destroyed 68,000 houses and turned 28,000 square miles, or 60 percent of the state, into a major disaster area.
"This deal is like anti-politics," says Barbour, who often refers to Katrina and its ravages as "this deal." "You just feel like people are dependent on you. Maybe it's supposed to be like this all the time. But not like this."
A burly former high school football player, Barbour prizes the rituals of good ol' boy bonding -- the bawdiness, bellowing and back-slapping that lubricate so many of the friendships he's collected. Which, again, might seem frivolous right now. Except that shared history comes in handy in times like these, and Barbour might have more shared history with more well-placed people than any governor in the country.
"I'm sure when the governor of Louisiana calls the White House, they call her back," says James Barksdale, the Mississippi native and former CEO of Netscape whom Barbour appointed to lead the state's recovery effort. "But it helps that our governor goes way back with these folks. They can just talk, cut through things. You can't underestimate friends at a time like this."