Louisiana Rep. Charlie Melancon moved to tears by gulf spill

Louisiana Congressman Charlie Melancon broke down during a House Energy subcommittee meeting Thursday morning talking about the BP Oil spill and the coastal damage the spill has caused. (May 27)
By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 11, 2010

GRAND ISLE, LA. -- Great globs of oil are churning in the surf. Muck-covered pelicans sit offshore, white only in their eyes. Here -- in a beach town living its nightmare -- Rep. Charlie Melancon (D) gets up at a community meeting.

He does whatever is the opposite of grandstanding: He explains what he can't do to help.

"I, like you, am just feeling so helpless that there's a hole out there," Melancon says to the crowd, filling the compact First Baptist Church. "Until we get that hole stopped, we're all in peril."

For all the politicians bogged down in the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, this is the essential dilemma: How does one look effective while actually flailing?

No politician can stop the spill; that will be done, if ever, by corporate submersibles at the bottom of the gulf. The problem is inside the jurisdiction of the U.S. government but physically outside its reach. All that frustration pushed President Obama this week to start working blue: He said he was trying to decide "whose ass to kick."

The real personification of the leak's political story -- of its ability to make power feel useless -- is Melancon, a junior congressman whose coastal district has taken the brunt of the spill.

Melancon is known as a man who makes things move in south Louisiana. But in this crisis, his most prominent act was last month, when he broke down and cried in front of colleagues and TV cameras at a subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill.

"I have problems because it's not a tangible. It's intangible. It's a hole in the ocean," he said, calm and composed in a recent interview. That hole, plus his heated Senate bid to unseat a GOP incumbent, have restricted his abilities to play congressman: to fix problems, or gripe at those who don't.

"The hard part is . . . ," Melancon said, pausing to sum up his problem, " . . . what can I do?"

Melancon (pronounced "Meh-LAW-sawn") is 62 -- a square-faced man with a medium-grade Cajun accent and a career hugging the political center. He grew up in small-town Napoleonville and served his political apprenticeship as an aide to former governor Edwin Edwards (D). Melancon met his wife, Peachy, working on Edwards's campaign. The couple visited their old boss in Oakdale federal prison just two months ago.

Melancon served in the state legislature and was president of the American Sugar Cane League. He entered Congress in 2005, in time to have his career defined by the Bayou State's catastrophes.

Four recent hurricanes have hit Melancon's swampy, French-inflected district in the toe of Louisiana's boot. "Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike" -- people say here, rattling them off like bad relatives. Katrina was the last time Melancon cracked: In an emotional outburst after weeks of little sleep, he made members of the Democratic Caucus watch a video of scenes of New Orleans's devastation.

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