The Boy from Yazoo City
Haley Barbour, Mississippi’s favorite son.
Dec 27, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 15 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
Governors move about in a bubble. From home to car to statehouse to plane, from ribbon-cutting to banquet to car to home, they are cushioned in a space built by bustling aides and scary-looking troopers in buzz cuts and plain clothes. In the bubble the governor is king, pasha of his own status-sphere, a singular figure of unchallengeable importance. There’s no one else quite like him in Helena or Jefferson City or Columbus.
And then the bubble transports him to somewhere like the Republican Governors Association conference, held last month at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront. The bubble encounters other bubbles. Awkwardness and disorientation ensue. At the Hilton’s VIP entrance the black SUVs nosed one another to get closer to the red carpet so the pashas could be disgorged. Troopers eyed other troopers and whispered darkly into cuff links. Advance men fidgeted, as they always do, indifferent to all pashas but their own, trying to pick one governor’s luggage from a great dogpile of gubernatorial luggage. At the elevator banks and escalators, in the lobbies and meeting rooms, it was the same: a collision of status-spheres, a paralyzing standoff.
So it was, anyway, at this year’s RGA, for all the governors but one. Haley Barbour—governor of Mississippi, chairman of the RGA, and likely presidential candidate—required no traveling status-sphere, for the Hilton itself was his bubble, before which all other bubbles went pop. When he appeared in those hallways or meeting rooms, crowds parted in deference and then, when he paused to chat with someone or other, came together to surround him in solicitude. Other governors, de-bubbled, hovered at the edges of his orbit, hoping to get a greeting.
They had come to the RGA to share in its greatest triumph, a near sweep of gubernatorial contests on November 2, for which Barbour is held more responsible than any other national Republican. He’s been here before. During his first full year as chairman of the Republican National Committee in 1994, Republicans won the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. This year’s victories once seemed equally improbable. Barbour became chairman last year in a moment of crisis, when the previous chairman, Mark Sanford of South Carolina, was shown to have a weakness for Argentinean divorcées, or at least one Argentinean divorcée. Barbour’s first move was to replenish the RGA’s coffers—he is the Midas of political fundraisers. In midsummer he tossed a $12 million lifeline to the struggling campaigns of Chris Christie in New Jersey and Bob McDonnell in Virginia, buying each enough time to regain his financial footing and go on to an upset victory in November. This year the RGA spent $102 million, compensating for notoriously feeble fundraising at the RNC. Republicans won nine of ten swing states, eight of which had Democratic governors; and four out of five Great Lakes states, all governed by Democrats.
“Wherever the races were hot and heavy—Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin—the rest of us kind of followed in the draft created by Haley and the RGA,” said Ed Gillespie, the Republican strategist and Barbour protégé. “His impact has been dramatic, and people know it.”
Since he first entered national Republican politics, as a young lawyer from Yazoo City, Mississippi, Barbour has been one of the most popular figures in the party. “If you don’t like Haley Barbour,” Gillespie said, “you’ve got something wrong with you.” Amiable and humorous and tirelessly upbeat, his persona is large and unusual enough to pass for colorful in today’s politics. There’s the voice, for one thing: an accent so rich and unapologetic—nine comes out nan—that a Yankee used to the gentler roundings of more acculturated Southerners might think he’s getting his leg pulled. The Barbour style of pronunciation involves a fatal collision of sibilants, as if he’d left the dentist’s office before the Novocain could wear off. He doesn’t so much walk as saunter. Though not tall, and not as heavy as his legend suggests—what poundage there is looks tightly packed—he’s physically imposing, not to say intimidating, with impressively large hands and head, and short thick arms that swing freely when he walks. You don’t have to be a Midwestern weenie to imagine him as the Southern sheriff in Deliverance, squinting at Jon Voight through aviator sunglasses and suggesting he might want to get his pale Yankee ass out of town.