Today Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is set to join the 2016 field. He is barely making it into the polls at this juncture – his message, which combines serious executive and policy experience and a record of dealing with multiple challenges (oil spills and hurricanes, tax and budget crises, getting sued over school choice) is not the sort of thing that appeals to the Republican Party right now, which seems more interested candidates most likely to get into a physical fight with Barack Obama. It seems fitting that Jindal is entering the race the same day that a poll is released showing Donald Trump in second in New Hampshire. But Jindal, who joins Rubio as the youngest candidates in this race, is a serious and likeable person who believes he has a message worth adding to the 2016 field. Here he is talking to his kids about running for president. He may yet overperform expectations, and if he can make it onto a debate stage, he has the capability to go toe-to-toe with any of the other candidates on any policy issue.
Jindal presents a challenging figure to the media in a number of respects, particularly those used to depicting Republicans as uneducated dummies. He has an Ivy League resume unmatched in the field – a Rhodes Scholar who was accepted into Harvard Medical and Yale Law but chose Oxford instead, appointed secretary of the Louisiana Health system at 24, president of the University system at 28. He’s got a brain, and a child of immigrants story to go with it.
So you ask how to write about Jindal? I give you The Washington Post’s India bureau chief:
“As a child, he announced he wanted to go by the name Bobby, after a character in “The Brady Bunch.” He converted from Hinduism to Christianity as a teen and was later baptized a Catholic as a student at Brown University — making his devotion to Christianity a centerpiece of his public life. He and his wife were quick to say in a “60 Minutes” interview in 2009 that they do not observe many Indian traditions — although they had two wedding ceremonies, one Hindu and one Catholic. He said recently that he wants to be known simply as an American, not an Indian American. “There’s not much Indian left in Bobby Jindal,” said Pearson Cross, a political science professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette who is writing a book on the governor.”
There are so many wonderful little aspects to this attack on Jindal’s insufficient respect for his Indian heritage. Imagine the WaPo or any other newspaper publishing a piece taking exactly this line of attack on the Castro brothers. Imagine a white journalist quoting a white professor criticizing the Castro brothers as being insufficiently Hispanic – “my goodness, they don’t even speak Spanish!” – and think how that would play in media circles.
Yet there’s something else interesting here beyond the normal lack of fair reporting. Just a few weeks ago a Washington Post reporter, Caitlin Dewey, created a Twitter bot correcting people who referred to Bruce Jenner in ways conflicting with how he now wants to be identified. Now, I generally have no real problem with people identifying as things that are different than what they are – my problem is with the idea that others need to acknowledge the heroism of such identification, or that we make it a thoughtcrime to disagree with their vision of reality. But set that aside for the moment and think about how differently these WaPo reporters approached these two subjects.
This reporting tactic concerning Bobby Jindal raises a series of troublesome questions about the way reporters view the process of Americanization. Jindal has never to my knowledge denigrated his Indian heritage – he just reflects more the Louisiana where he grew up than the country of his ethnic origin. What’s so wrong with that? Why is it so problematic that Jindal identifies as Christian, not Hindu? Why is it a problem that he took on an Americanized name, as many children of immigrants do, and not his original birth name? Why is it a problem that he and his wife observe American traditions and not many Indian ones?
We live in an era where we are supposed to hail the heroism of men who identify as women, and where serious people defend Rachel Dolezal identifying as black. Perhaps Bobby Jindal is problematic because identifying as things is good, unless what you identify as is an American.
Even if it just so happens to be who he is.