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."
"Everyone knows Haley and everyone's got Haley stories," says Democratic strategist Bob Beckel, a former TV opponent of Barbour's who would become a drinking buddy.
Here's a Haley story: One night after a TV appearance in the 1990s, Beckel and Barbour repaired to the Old Ebbitt Grill, where a group of young Republicans began taunting Beckel. After a certain point, Barbour picked one of the young Republicans up by his shirt collar and backed him against a wall.
"That guy's my friend and you owe him an apology," Barbour insisted, according to Beckel, and the young Republican promptly obliged.
A Friend in Need
Katrina's aftermath offers a lesson in the benefits of having friends.
Specifically, the benefits of having Haley Barbour's friends -- most of whom have never met Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco.
Within hours of the storm, old friend Sam Adcock, the head lobbyist for European aerospace firm EADS, was sending five helicopters and a hospital airplane for Mississippi officials to use in recovery efforts. Another friend, lobbyist David O'Brien, was donating 100 satellite phones so the state's leaders could communicate while many of their counterparts in Louisiana were stuck with inoperable cell phones.
Barbour also received a call from A.D. "Pete" Correll, the CEO of timber giant Georgia-Pacific and a former lobbying client. Correll offered his firm's services to help salvage storm-damaged timber. He also agreed to reopen two Georgia-Pacific facilities in Mississippi, which will employ about 500 workers.
One of the striking images from President Bush's first post-Katrina visit to the Gulf Coast was of the president gravitating to Barbour. Barbour was RNC chairman when Bush was first elected governor of Texas, sat on Bush's presidential campaign exploratory committee and has strenuously avoided criticizing the Bush administration's response to Katrina.
"When he got to me he cried," Barbour says of his hug with Bush, in Mobile, Ala. "Tears just ran down his cheeks. It made me cry."
Barbour is not a starry-eyed idealist or a politician compelled to mention his religion at every chance. He generally eschews public self-reflection, the feel-your-pain deal. "I'm just not that kind of guy," he says, responding to a Barbara Walters-ish inquiry about whether Katrina has "changed" him.
But Barbour was clearly shaken by the storm. He kept saying, "Pray for us," says Republican lobbyist Ed Rogers, Barbour's longtime friend and business partner.
"We've never been 'pray for us' kind of guys."
Now Barbour is talking about Katrina's "vast destruction," "utter desolation" and "gargantuan devastation." He favors elaborate metaphors, often involving animals. Finding temporary housing for displaced Mississippians, he says, is like "digesting an elephant . . . a slow, slow process."
He also equates the housing problem with "those toys that you get for your kids, where you get the hammer and beat the chipmunk down and it pops back up. That's what this housing deal is."
Barbour makes regular trips to "the devastation" -- the operative synonym for the coastal region. Like Reagan, the governor's political idol, Barbour emphasizes hopeful rhetoric even amid despair-inducing conditions. He talks of how Katrina could, in the long term, be the impetus for a "renaissance" in Mississippi.
This renaissance, if it occurs, could be a springboard into a run for president in 2008 -- something Barbour had been considering before Katrina. "He is, in some ways, in a very enviable political position," says W. Martin Wiseman, director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University. Wiseman adds that Barbour's fortunes will be determined largely by his ability to bring in federal relief dollars -- a task he is suited to.
"There will be no federal account that he won't know about or tap into," says Ed Gillespie, a Barbour protege who served as RNC chairman until last year.
"He knows what to ask Thad Cochran to do, and what not to ask him," Rogers says, referring to one of Mississippi's Republican senators and chairman of the Appropriations Committee, who will hold great influence over how federal relief money will be spent. "He knows where FEMA money is. He knows how it all works."
Barbour also benefits from the chaos next door in Louisiana, which has received more scrutiny and criticism. He is often asked for his assessment of Louisiana, particularly of its Democratic governor, Blanco. He won't answer explicitly, but his critique is barely veiled. Asked about a proposal to turn over Mississippi's relief effort to a federal "czar," Barbour says, "We don't need that here," adding that neither do neighboring Alabama or Florida. "These states are capable of doing the right thing."
"That's not for me to say," he says.
Barbour and his wife are unwinding at the governor's mansion after another Katrina-logged day. Marsha Barbour sips from a large tumbler of Jack Daniel's, Haley from a glass of white wine.
"I'm on a diet," the governor says, explaining his choice of beverage. (He normally drinks bourbon, Maker's Mark.)
They sit in a small dining area, picking at a plate of spiced shrimp and cheese. Completed in 1842, the pillared mansion covers a full city block and is the second-oldest continuously occupied governor's residence in the country.
The Barbours are exhausted -- the first lady from another day trip to "the devastation," the governor from a regimen of meetings, briefings, troubleshoots. Aides are scurrying to rearrange the next day's schedule upon news that President Bush would be coming to Gulfport and Barbour would be returning with him to Washington on Air Force One. A steward keeps refilling their glasses with wine and whiskey.
Marsha has spent most of her days recently tending to the obliterated coast. She was part of the first response team of state and National Guard workers to arrive in Gulfport.
"Marsha's got a great hurricane story," the governor says. "You wanna tell it, baby?"
Yes, she does, and commences with a zigzagging account that features the first lady knocking on a stranger's door "because I had to go to the little girls' room."
"Hi, I'm Marsha Barbour," she said to the woman who answered the door.
"Oh, hi. My name is Katrina," the woman said. ("Really. Can you believe that?" Marsha says. "Her name was actually Katrina. What are the chances?")
The conversation veers from silly to random to sentimental: Marsha Barbour starts to describe "the devastation" but tears up. "You don't need to write this," she says.
Quickie story: Barbour invited a reporter for the Biloxi Sun Herald to join him on a helicopter tour of "the devastation." And the reporter, Geoff Pender, was in tears.
"Damn near weeping," Barbour says. "This a reporter we're talking about. Crying. You believe that?"
"Hey, he might be a reporter, but he's a person, too," Marsha says charitably.
"She gives 'em the benefit of the doubt," the governor says of reporters.
Rudy Giuliani was at the mansion recently. They drank wine and smoked cigars. Marsha says she doesn't mind Haley's occasional cigar-smoking, provided he doesn't try to kiss her afterward.
Not long ago, the governor smoked a cigar, came to bed and tried to kiss her, "and I almost threw up," Marsha says. "I had to go brush my teeth at 1 o'clock in the morning."
"This new job of mine is making me really tired," she says, insisting on a kiss from the gov before she heads to bed. She presses her finger to her lips and he obliges.
"Go ahead, smoke a cigar," she says, pouring herself a tumbler of Jack to go.
As Marsha turns to exit, the governor slaps her on the butt.
Finding His Way
Barbour is at his most spirited when discussing his home town, Yazoo City, a town of 14,000 about 40 miles northwest of Jackson. His neighbors included former agriculture secretary Mike Espy, the first black congressman from Mississippi since Reconstruction, and Willie Morris, the author and former editor of Harper's. Zig Ziglar, the inspirational speaker whom the Barbours greatly admire, also claims to be from Yazoo City, but Barbour contends that he's from Zeiglerville, "a suburb of Yazoo City."
"Haley comes off as this Washington guy but it's misleading" says Cochran, one of Barbour's closest friends. "Part of him will always be a homeboy. In accent, attitude and everything else."
Like most people who came of age in the South in the 1950s and '60s, Barbour, a seventh-generation Mississippian, is a child of Democrats. His father, who died when Haley was 2, was a prominent prosecutor.
But Barbour picked up some contrarian GOP notions growing up -- mainly from his Republican older brother, Jeppie, who would become the mayor of Yazoo City. Haley dropped out of the University of Mississippi and went to work on Richard Nixon's presidential campaign in 1968 (he eventually returned to Ole Miss for law school). He was named state director for the Census at 22, a patronage gig from his work on Nixon's campaign.
In 1982, at age 34, Barbour challenged Sen. John Stennis, the state's then-81-year-old Democratic godfather who was first elected to the Senate in 1947. The race offered a view into Barbour's competitiveness and, some would say, ruthlessness. He emphasized Stennis's age, hanging a banner at a county fair that wished Stennis a "Happy 81st birthday."
Barbour also coined a slogan, "A Candidate for the 80s" -- as opposed to, say, a "Candidate in his 80s." Barbour lost with 38 percent of the vote.
He contemplated other campaigns but wound up in more powerful jobs. "I realized that what I did in the White House was more powerful than 90 senators," says Barbour, who served as political director of the Reagan White House in 1985 and '86. Same with his stint as chairman of the Republican National Committee in the 1990s -- a period that included the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in 1994.
Barbour's stint at the RNC gave him access to an elite group of corporate executives and wealthy donors, several of whom would become lobbying clients. He courted controversy at times. Barbour was called to testify before Congress about a financial arrangement with a Hong Kong businessman that helped a Republican "issues" group during his stint as party chairman. The Justice Department inquired into the matter (a three-judge appeals panel would rule that the arrangement was "not criminal").
He returned to his home state to run for governor in 2003 against incumbent Democrat Ronnie Musgrove. Bush, Cheney and Giuliani, among other friends, stumped for him. He raised $10.6 million in what was the most expensive race in Mississippi history (Musgrove raised $8.5 million). At one point, Barbour criticized Musgrove for supporting a 2001 referendum -- rejected by Mississippi voters -- that would have removed the image of the Confederate battle flag from the state flag. Barbour won with 53 percent of the vote, becoming Mississippi's second Republican governor since Reconstruction.
In retrospect, Barbour had prosaic goals for his first term. He mentions tort reform, balancing the state's budget and creating jobs. "Now it turns out my governorship is gonna turn on this deal," Barbour says, adding that if he could have foreseen Katrina, "I could have made a lot more money doing other things."
Back at the mansion late at night, Barbour becomes philosophical.
"You can't explain it to people unless you're in the arena," he says of what it's like to lead a state during a catastrophe. "All these people who are relying on you. And suddenly you've got to rise to that occasion." He closes his eyes, enunciating his words. He speaks of the importance of "hitching up your britches." That's what you do when you get knocked down: "Hitch up your britches." Like Mississippi did after the Civil War, after Reconstruction, after Camille in 1969.
Barbour's voice quiets to the tone of a bedtime story. He finishes off his sixth glass of wine. Another visit to the devastation looms in a few hours.
"We'll overcome Katrina," he vows, "just like she overwhelmed us.
"And with that, good night."