New Orleans's Cao Fulfills American Dream by Reaching U.S. House
Tuesday, December 30, 2008
NEW ORLEANS Anh "Joseph" Cao -- the hot new property in Congress, Mr. Upset, the first Vietnamese American elected to the U.S. House or Senate, the first Republican to win Louisiana's 2nd Congressional District since before Louis Armstrong was born -- is driving across this Gothic American bayou. He's relating how, as a Jesuit seminarian in the slums of Mexico nearly 20 years ago, he experienced a crisis of faith.
He was dispirited by how God could let such human misery exist, he says and then stops himself.
"Do you ever read Kierkegaard?" he asks.
Um, the 19th-century Danish philosopher is in our memory bank, but "Fear and Trembling" has not been on our coffee table for quite some time.
"Kierkegaard had this story about a man going through life. The man reached an abyss. He had to make what Kierkegaard called the leap of faith. In life's journey, you sometimes reach a level of uncertainty that you have to make such a leap.
"That's what happened to me in Mexico. I was working in extremely poor conditions, and I wanted to promote social change. I came to believe, over the course of two or three years, that the best way to do that would be to enter public office. It would also allow me to have a family -- the celibate life can be quite lonely. So I drafted a course of action for myself to enter politics. But it was a quite painful discernment. It implied I would have to leave the seminary. I would have to start life over again. I would have to make that leap of faith."
Cao (pronounced "gow") is 41. He is soft-spoken, with neatly combed, thick black hair. His trade, until recently, was immigration and personal-injury lawyer. He stands just under 5-2. Soaking wet, he might weigh 125 pounds. He is a very good listener. He smiles, but not all the time. He runs five miles every day before dawn.
He is telling this story in his lightly accented English, a reminder that he was airlifted as a child out of Saigon "two or three days" before that city fell to communist forces.
He makes scant mention of other hardships: arriving in Indiana without his parents, a terrified 8-year-old who spoke no English; leaving the seminary in 1996 in a weathered Honda Accord, bound for his sister's house in Falls Church; arriving there with $20 to his name and no prospects save for his faith, determination and intellect. (In this tableau, Hurricane Katrina washing out his New Orleans home with eight feet of water in 2005 is not anything much to discuss.)
So -- he's back to his story now -- his stunning victory earlier this month over veteran congressman William "Cold Cash" Jefferson, he of the beaucoup federal indictments and $90,000 in marked bills in his freezer. It didn't surprise Cao at all.
He's been running for office for 10 years. It's just in the past few weeks that anyone noticed.
"Nobody gave him a chance, and all of a sudden -- boom! -- he was right there," gushes Eddie White, a retired electrician who has a fishing shack just down the canal from Cao's home way out in the bayous of east New Orleans. "It's like the American dream."