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Louisiana Rep. Charlie Melancon moved to tears by gulf spill

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 11, 2010; C01

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.

Those days were hard enough, he told the Grand Isle community meeting, that he sometimes feels like he has post-traumatic stress disorder (an aide insisted later that the congressman was kidding). Now, another disaster gnaws at him and his colleagues. On one recent day, Melancon was in a government office in Port Fourchon, an oil town on Louisiana's ragged coast. Leaning against one wall, there was a twin mattress, used by parish officials when they had to bunk in the office.

"I've seen the mattresses before, when it's a storm," Melancon says to Brennan Matherne, the spokesman for the Lafourche Parish president. It's his mattress.

"Guess what, Charlie? It's a storm," Matherne says.

But Melancon says it's worse, in some ways: A storm ends, and then there's something for a congressman to do. It's different this time.

In this crisis, Melancon says he's crisscrossed his district, acting as an intermediary for constituents and local officials. He succeeded in getting a medical clinic set up for spill cleanup workers and pushed for mental-health counselors. He lobbied Obama to use military planes to rush "containment boom" to block some surface oil from reaching the region. At the same time, Melancon has repeatedly pushed the White House to ease up on a moratorium on deep-water drilling, an crucial industry in his district.

His best-known action, however, remains that tearful display of political paralysis.

"Our culture is threatened. Our coastal economy is threatened. And everything that I know and love is at risk. Even though this marsh lies . . ."

Melancon was reading a statement during a May 27 hearing in a House subcommittee. He stopped -- afterward, Melancon said he was angry that other legislators were engaging in finger-pointing while his district suffered. " . . . along coastal Louisiana, these are America's wetlands . . ."

Another break in his voice. Melancon couldn't go on. He punched off his microphone and exited the hearing room.

For the rest of the country, Obama's words on Tuesday -- spoken in reply to NBC's Matt Lauer, who suggested it might be time for him to start kicking somebody's butt -- brought home the spill's dilemma. What matters here is not levers of power. It is joysticks, the controls wielded by the private contractors steering the robot submersibles.

Everybody else is just mopping up.

"It creates a strong demand for politicians to take assertive, dramatic action. And with the oil spill, there's not much they can do about the immediate crisis," said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history at Princeton University.

Ask political scientists to think of other times when presidents were trapped by a crisis they lacked the power to solve, and the answers aren't good. Carter during the Iran hostage crisis. Reagan after the Challenger explosion. LBJ and Vietnam.

"He just has to wait like the rest of us, for BP," said James A. Thurber, at American University.

Other politicians around the gulf have reacted differently to the same frustration. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) has urged people to come to the beach, playing down a problem he can't solve. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) has become a frenetic and effective nag, needling everybody else to do more.

Melancon has opted for bleak honesty: There's only so much I can do. The reason seems obvious -- of all the gulf's prominent politicians, the spill might have put him in the tightest political spot.

Melancon can exert even less control over the mess than Obama does. He is much closer to the problem, and to those people who expect it to be fixed. And he is vying to topple Sen. David Vitter (R), so his prospects are tied to the Democratic White House. Obama, along with BP, is one of Louisianans' two poles of blame.

Here is Melancon's I-wish-I-could-help message in action: The congressman, in a peach-colored polo shirt, is talking to Shelly Landry inside her family's Sureway grocery store on Grand Isle. Landry is a slim woman, smiling through her rage.

"He can't run a country. He damn well can't run an oil field," Landry said, talking about Obama and the drilling moratorium. "Bobby [Jindal] is doing a good job, but I'd like to see him with his hand around that neck, on the president."

Melancon doesn't echo the outrage; he speaks calmly and generally. "[I] try to explain it to people in Washington: Y'all just don't get it."

But Landry is still going. Her store should be jammed with tourists and recreational fishermen. Instead, it's almost deserted. "After four hurricanes and then this, do you really want to leave this to your child?" she asks, referring to her own dilemma.

"I don't know if there's anything I can do," he tells her.

Landry says she likes Melancon, she's glad he's here. She talks a lot about Jindal, though. "The squeaky wheel gets the grease," she advises Melancon before he goes.

In a political sense, it's hard to know how well his approach is working. Vitter's campaign staff has criticized Melancon for being too close to Obama. But it probably would anyway.

The polls show him losing to Vitter by double digits. But they did before the leak, too.

Melancon says he has seen signs that people appreciate what he's doing. After he cried on Capitol Hill, he walked into Lapeyrouse's grocery near Cocodrie, La., and Mrs. Lapeyrouse was grateful for what he'd done.

"When I walked in the door, she came over real quick and thanked me for understanding," he said.

But, in a follow-up interview this week, Rosalie Lapeyrouse was more ambivalent. She likes Melancon, she said. She thinks he's helping overall.

And she feels like crying all the time, especially after her son pulled up his shrimp net a few days ago and found it full of oil.

"I think [Melancon's] trying, but when he started crying, I'm not sure what he was crying about," she said. "I just didn't know if he was crying because he felt sorry for the people, or because he wanted the people to feel sorry for him."

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