The Magazine

The Boy from Yazoo City

Haley Barbour, Mississippi’s favorite son.

Dec 27, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 15 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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For decades Mr. Mott owned the Yazoo Herald. He has known some combination or other of Barbours his entire life. Barbours have been in Yazoo for at least five generations. Haley’s mother LeFlore claimed descent from Greenwood LeFlore, the first elected chief of the Choctaw nation. The chief was a wily customer who managed to elude the forcible removal of his tribe in the 1830s and get himself elected state senator, accepting the demotion without complaint. Politics runs through both lines of Haley’s family. His great-great-great-great-grandfather was the first senator from Mississippi after statehood in 1817. His paternal grandfather was a judge, the leading stockholder in the town bank, and a prominent railroad lawyer, the Illinois Central’s man in Mississippi. He built a fine two-story stone house at the corner of Second Street and the optimistically named Grand Avenue; both the choice of building material and the second level made the house unusually magnificent in a town of clapboard bungalows. 

Haley’s father built a house next door when he married LeFlore. He was a lawyer, too, remembered in the lore of Yazoo City as a hard-drinking charmer who could seduce a delta jury with theatrical flourishes and windy quotations from classical literature. He died of a heart attack when Haley was two. LeFlore worked odd jobs as she raised her three boys alone.

Mr. Mott drove me through the neighborhood where Haley and his brothers, Jeppie and Wiley, grew up, and where Jeppie still lives, a few blocks from downtown. A couple houses stand empty. The side streets dead end at the railroad tracks. On the far side of the tracks are the historically black neighborhoods. “They were,” Mr. Mott said, when I asked how the neighborhoods were segregated. “Now of course people live wherever they want to.” He did note that the real estate market in Yazoo City has been in a steep decline since well before the most recent collapse. A local realtor told him not long ago that in the past ten years fewer than ten houses had been built to sell.

Mr. Mott considers Haley Barbour the greatest governor the state has ever known. Normally chatty and light-hearted, he grows severely serious when he says this. He had taken me to the old white elementary school—none of the black schools survived desegregation—which has been turned into a “cultural center” and a history museum. The biggest exhibit recalls that day in July 1977 when President Carter came to Yazoo City to hold a nationally televised town meeting and then spend the night. (The centerpiece of the exhibit is the headboard of the bed the president slept in, its authenticity certified by a brass plaque.) The next-biggest exhibits are dedicated to Willie Morris, the once-famous Southern overwriter who whipped memories of his Yazoo childhood into a series of sweet, frothy memoirs, and to Haley Barbour. Barbour’s exhibit is a tall poster-board triptych, painted blue and draped in patriotic bunting. Black and white autographed photos of Barbour with various Republican presidents are arranged here and there. At the center the governor and his wife Marsha smile in full color from the cover of a Christian magazine. 

“Some politicians just talk about it,” Mr. Mott said gravely, remarking on the importance of staying true to one’s roots. “But Haley believes it. He lives it. He went off to Washington to work. But he lived here. He always came back on the weekends. He still does, with all his responsibilities. He still attends the Presbyterian church like he always did. Now he’s got guards, so he comes late and leaves early, not to create a disturbance. You could not find a deeper Mississippian than Haley Barbour.”

Certainly it’s a theme the governor himself warms to. 

“There’s a sense of place here you don’t find in other places, a way of belonging,” Barbour told me later. He still recalls a statistic from the 1970 Mississippi census, which as a young man he helped direct. “The percentage of Mississippians who said they had been born here was 91 percent. Ninety-one percent! It’s lower than that now, but it’s still higher than normal, than what you’d find anywhere else. I had an office in Washington, D.C., for 19 years and I met people who didn’t know where their grandparents were buried.” He tucked in his chin and widened his eyes, as though he’d just caught the family cat smoking a cigar. “In the South, that’s just unheard of.”

As an illustration of Mississippi’s “way of belonging,” Barbour mentioned the law firm his grandfather started with his brother-in-law in 1895. Haley practiced there in the 1970s and 1980s. It’s now run by one of Haley’s brothers and one of Haley’s nephews. “That firm has been on the same block in Yazoo City for 115 years,” Barbour said, with great emphasis. “In that time it’s moved twice, from one side of the street to the other. But always on the same block.”

Once I asked one of Haley’s childhood friends, Chuck Jordan, now of Greenville, Mississippi, what it was like growing up in Yazoo back then. “It was just an ideal childhood,” he said. “I think of dances, parties, football, Little League, boys doing all the things boys do in a small town.” Barbour has the same memories. “I grew up in a town that was like a family,” he said. I mentioned that all the Yazooans I talked to about the old days made sure to tell me how everyone walked wherever they had to go—a marker, I supposed, of simplicity and leisure. “That’s true,” he said, “although you couldn’t walk two blocks before someone offered you a ride. That’s what I mean about family.”

The center of attention in the Yazoo family was often one of the Barbour boys. The high school yearbook from Haley’s senior year, 1965, has a two-page spread dedicated to him alone. The photographs are printed in the typical incomprehensible yearbook style, as if they’d been airbrushed on the page with gray ink. But it’s easy enough to make out the BMOC, to borrow a phrase from 1965. One photo shows an unexpectedly trim Haley in formal attire with a pretty companion, after their election as Mr. Yazoo City High School and Miss Yazoo City High School. Below that was a thick paragraph of accomplishments: four-year letterman in football, two-year letterman in baseball; president of the High Wire Club; coeditor of the yearbook; American Legion Award, National Athletic Scholarship Society, National Honors Society; vice president of the student council and president of the student body. “Known for his cocky friendliness and versatility,” said the caption, “Haley Barbour was elected Mr. Yazoo City High School capping four years of honors at Yazoo High. Despite his activities, he was a straight ‘A’ student.”

The page opposite shows him on one knee in full football attire, helmet on hip. Another photo caught him in his letter sweater, holding a bulky microphone and declaiming earnestly. 

“He was probably running for something,” said Harold Kelly, Barbour’s high school football coach and the principal, back then, of Yazoo High. Mr. Kelly had given me the yearbook to thumb through. “He ran for everything. He came into my office one time and said, ‘Coach, I’m going to run for president of the student body.’ He was just a junior at the time. I said ‘Haley, that’s a position for seniors. Wait your turn. Wait till next year.’ He said he’d gone and checked the bylaws and there wasn’t anything in them that prevented a junior from running for president. I could check. So I took the bylaws down and read through them and of course he was right. So he ran and he won. I came home that afternoon and I told my wife, ‘I’ve just been talking to the future governor of this state.’ ”

The year 1965 was also a signal year in Barbour’s political development. His older brother Jeppie came home from the Army and shocked the family by declaring himself a Goldwater Republican. As a politically well-connected family in Mississippi, Barbours had been bred to be Democrats since the Pleistocene Era. But there were subtleties and gradations. “We were Eastland Democrats,” Haley told me, referring to James O. Eastland, the long-serving U.S. senator, steadfast conservative, committed segregationist, and the bane of the national party’s left wing. As it happened, Barbour said, “our grandfather was Eastland’s daddy’s lawyer.” The two families had long been close. (“Mississippi is more like a club than a state—everybody knows each other,” Chuck Jordan said.) Coming out as a Republican, Haley said, “took a lot of guts on my brother’s part.” 

No doubt that’s true as a personal matter, but ideologically the leap from Eastland Democrat to Goldwater Republican was not death-defying. Haley followed, and so did other Barbours, including LeFlore, who bragged to her children that she had never voted for a Democrat for president, and never voted for anyone other than a Democrat for any lower office—a bipolarity typical of the Eastland Democrats. “She voted for Strom Thurmond in 1948,” Barbour said. “She even voted for Willkie in 1944. There were three votes for Willkie in town, her and her mother and daddy. The way the town reacted, she said you would have thought Hitler got those three votes.”

Jeppie decided to run for mayor in 1968, and Haley, then in his third year at the University of Mississippi, volunteered as campaign manager. Jeppie won on a platform that included the revitalization of downtown, which already was showing signs of decay as stores closed or moved out to the new strip malls opening on the outskirts. But the issue that overwhelmed Yazoo City, and brought it national attention, was school integration.

In 1969 the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued an order forcing the city to integrate its school system by January 7, 1970, more than 15 years after the Supreme Court outlawed “separate but equal” public education. When Haley graduated, Yazoo City High School had yet to admit a black student. (He encountered black classmates, very few in number, for the first time at Ole Miss.) Yazoo public schools had been separate but not, of course, equal; per pupil spending in black schools was less than one third what it was in white schools. As deadline day approached reporters flocked to Yazoo City from the three national television networks, the wire services, most large metropolitan newspapers, and several newspapers from England and France. 

“The only problem I remember was,” Jordan told me, “we had all these reporters staying here from all over the world, and we didn’t have a bar in town! So we set one up in the library.” 

Willie Morris was in Yazoo City for deadline day too, like Haley a son of the segregated South, though unlike Haley a racial liberal. “By the middle of the day,” Morris wrote in Yazoo: Integration in a Deep Southern Town, “it was quite apparent that Yazoo City had indeed integrated its schools calmly and deliberately.” The national reporters presented the city to the world as a model of how integration at its best could work. The new school system was roughly 55 percent black, and as the deadline passed few whites withdrew for the handful of private schools that had hurriedly opened not long before. 

Jeppie Barbour is one of the protagonists of Morris’s book. He is portrayed as a racial moderate, despite his boasts about the Mace canisters that local police had taken to wearing on their belts. “You get a drunk,” Morris quotes Jeppie saying, “you either get him to come with you or you have to manhandle him. You give him Mace and he’ll want to go anywhere with you. It keeps that nigger’s head in good shape.”

Jeppie saw the policy of the city’s white leaders not as capitulation to the federal government but as resignation to the inevitable. “We’re gonna make the most of this,” he told Morris. “It won’t be any fun. We don’t have many newcomers, and it’s hard to leave here no matter what happens. We’re not gonna have any mass exodus, black or white.  .  .  .  We don’t have much other choice.” 

Both Mr. Mott and Mr. Kelly had told me that Yazoo City was perhaps the only municipality in Mississippi that managed to integrate the schools without violence. I asked Haley Barbour why he thought that was so. 

“Because the business community wouldn’t stand for it,” he said. “You heard of the Citizens Councils? Up north they think it was like the KKK. Where I come from it was an organization of town leaders. In Yazoo City they passed a resolution that said anybody who started a chapter of the Klan would get their ass run out of town. If you had a job, you’d lose it. If you had a store, they’d see nobody shopped there. We didn’t have a problem with the Klan in Yazoo City.”

In interviews Barbour doesn’t have much to say about growing up in the midst of the civil rights revolution. “I just don’t remember it as being that bad,” he said. “I remember Martin Luther King came to town, in ’62. He spoke out at the old fairground and it was full of people, black and white.”

Did you go? I asked.

“Sure, I was there with some of my friends.”

I asked him why he went out.

“We wanted to hear him speak.”

I asked what King had said that day. 

“I don’t really remember. The truth is, we couldn’t hear very well. We were sort of out there on the periphery. We just sat on our cars, watching the girls, talking, doing what boys do. We paid more attention to the girls than to King.”

Mr. Kelly, the former football coach, drove me through downtown and then out to the house that Haley and Marsha Barbour still own, where they raised their two sons. I could recognize downtown Yazoo City from the old photos, but only by its configuration. It looked as if it had been picked clean. There were a couple of bars, a hardware store, and a café that seemed to open at odd hours, and not much more. On one block the empty storefronts had been painted a variety of bright pastels, like San Francisco row houses, in a sad emulation of vitality. Mr. Kelly told me that an entrepreneur had been trying to refurbish some of the old buildings as condo lofts, the way they have in other, larger downtowns up north, but without success. Where families once walked to downtown for new clothes or appliances, they now drive an hour south to the suburbs of Jackson, the state capital, and hope in the meantime that the city government succeeds in its efforts to lure a Walmart out to the bypass. 

Mr. Kelly turned around and drove out toward the hills. The relief and earnest fellowship of January 7, 1970, proved fleeting. Jeppie Barbour had been wrong: There was indeed a mass exodus, but within the city itself. After two years the white student body had declined sharply, as parents withdrew their kids and enrolled them in the new private schools. The public schools today are more than 80 percent African American. It’s been a kind of privatized resegregation. Even before integration, the more affluent Yazooans had begun detaching themselves from the neighborhoods around the central city and moving into ranch houses and split levels on large lots carved from the woods outside of town. Haley and Marsha’s house is up a winding road on a hillside covered in dogwood and sweetgum trees, just above the nine-hole Yazoo Country Club. Down the hill and across the tracks, Mr. Kelly showed me, is Manchester Academy, where the Barbours sent their two boys. It’s a private K-12 school, founded in 1969. 

“It was built for people who didn’t want their children to go to public schools after integration,” Mr. Kelly said. Just down the road, ground is being cleared for the new Haley Barbour Parkway. 

What role Yazoo City’s segregationist past might play in Barbour’s presidential campaign is hard to say. It could become an issue, particularly for Washington political reporters who enjoy moralizing about race and public education while sending their own children to progressive schools like Sidwell Friends and St. Albans, where applicants of color are discreetly screened and their numbers carefully regulated. An even bigger issue, though, might be Barbour’s lobbying. Political reporters as a rule are highly suspicious of lobbyists, and Haley Barbour was one of the best lobbyists Washington has ever seen. 

After Jeppie’s victory Haley decided to give himself up to Republican politics almost entirely. He worked for Richard Nixon’s campaign, which brought him a plum patronage job, directing the 1970 census in the state. “There wasn’t a lot of competition,” he said. He never returned to Ole Miss to finish his undergraduate degree, though he did get a law degree in 1973. He joined the family firm in Yazoo City and traveled the state trying to build the party. Republicans then, he says, were the party of youth and progress—“made up of Jaycees and Boy Scouts”—in contrast to the Democrats, sclerotic from a century of single-party dominance and burdened with the legacy of segregation. “I was Republican county chairman when I was 25,” he told me, “and I was the oldest Republican county chairman in the state.”

In 1979, he managed the Southern states for the presidential campaign of the former governor of Texas, John Connally, considered at the time to be Ronald Reagan’s chief conservative rival for the 1980 nomination. Arrogant, willful, and volatile, Connally raised and spent $11 million before the campaign even reached the Southern primaries, a sum that bought him a single vote on the convention floor. Back in Mississippi two years later, Barbour capped a decade of party-building with a run for the U.S. Senate seat held by John Stennis. Like Eastland, Stennis was a pillar of Democratic politics and a right-wing stalwart. Barbour was 35 and Stennis was about to celebrate his 81st birthday—a milestone that became the centerpiece of Barbour’s campaign. Barbour’s yard signs and bumper stickers carried the not-terribly-subtle motto “A Senator for the Eighties.” But the senator in his eighties was a political friend of President Reagan, who declined to campaign for his fellow Republican Barbour after Stennis implored the president to stay away. Even so, Barbour managed to raise $1.6 million, an astounding sum for the time and for the state. He lost with a respectable 35 percent of the vote. His relations with the Reagan White House remained strong enough for him to get a job in its political office, working with the young Hoosier Mitch Daniels, still one of his closest friends.

When Barbour moved to Washington he left Marsha and the boys in Yazoo City. “We never regretted it,” he said. “The boys graduated from Yazoo City schools. They got a good small-town experience growing up. The alternative would be growing up in Northern Virginia, McLean or someplace. And Marsha had a lot of great friends in Yazoo City.” But as Mr. Mott solemnly told me—as every friend of Barbour’s in Mississippi will tell you—“he came home every weekend”; or “most weekends,” as others say; or “every other weekend,” as Barbour himself says. He was in any case a long-distance parent, as most politicians must be. Of his life in Washington, Marsha once told USA Today: “I haven’t really been that much a part of it. He’s so busy and so consumed. He hasn’t been home for an anniversary in a long time, or a birthday.” It’s a one-way bargain that the wives and husbands of politicians often strike. “I could be alone in Yazoo City or alone in Washington,” she was once quoted saying. “I prefer Yazoo City.”

It was the contacts he made through the Reagan White House that set the table for his lobbying career. In January 1987 Barbour quit political office and returned part time to the law practice in Yazoo City. But the tug of Washington was too insistent to resist. “You may not know this,” he said to me, mordantly, “but you can make a lot more money lobbying in Washington, D.C., than you can practicing law in Yazoo City, Mississippi.” He broke from the family firm for good in ’89 and set up shop full time in Washington. He worked solo at first. “I didn’t want to be a part of a big firm,” he said, fearing it would restrict his commuting to Yazoo. “It also meant that I didn’t have to take credit or blame for the clients of some partner down the hall.”

By the time Barbour set to work in Washington, the nature of lobbying was in the final phase of a profound transformation. It had once been the work of discreet and solitary wise men, a Democrat like Clark Clifford or a Republican like Bryce Harlow, who could resolve a client’s difficulty with a phone call or a whispered word over dinner and resisted the title “lobbyist” as déclassé. Clifford visibly shuddered at the sound of the word. The breakdown of the seniority system in Congress rendered the old techniques obsolete, indeed impossible: Power that had once been centralized in a few committee chairmen was scattered, placing hundreds of legislators on more or less equal footing—each his own little power center, open for business. And the remorseless expansion of the federal government into areas of commercial life that had once been off-limits opened up vast new mission fields for lobbyists. And they were no longer ashamed to be called lobbyists.

Perhaps this last change was the most profound. Today the word, and the business, are considered no more discreditable than “podiatrist” and “podiatry.” It’s just another way to make a ton of money in Washington. “You bet I was a lobbyist,” Barbour says, often. “And I was a damned good one.” His tone when he says this is peremptory and defensive but unabashed.

“Lobbying is just like being a lawyer arguing a case in a courtroom,” he told me. “It’s a form of advocacy.” This analogy—comparing lobbying to our adversarial system of justice—is popular among lobbyists. They have even adopted the terms of lawyering: They create accounts in firms with clients for whom they write briefs. The analogy has its problems, though. Ideally the adversarial argument in a courtroom is resolved by a disinterested third party, a judge who determines for the record, once the arguments are made, what’s true and what isn’t. When a lawmaker is lobbied, by contrast, every party has an interest, including the lawmaker; the arrangement has no use for a disinterested arbiter. It’s pure persuasion—an effort in which fact and argument are only two tools among many others. When lobbyists spend a great deal of time going to parties with the people they lobby and writing large checks for their reelection campaigns, they are not doing so to tighten their arguments. The successful lobbyist may or may not be the one with the strongest case or the soundest facts; he is definitely the one who has most artfully brought the most pressure to bear. Lawyers who try this with judges get disbarred; lobbyists who do it with legislators get rich.

Barbour embraced the new, unapologetic culture of lobbying with his customary skill and enthusiasm, and by the time he left his firm to run for governor, in 2002, his client list read like a corporate all-star roster: Microsoft, BellSouth, Pfizer, Citigroup, Delta, GlaxoSmithKline, Exxon. In 1991 he took on two partners to form a firm called BGR. Throughout the nineties it was routinely listed among the top five lobbying firms in Fortune magazine’s annual survey of Washington insiders. No insider was further inside than Barbour. In 1993, while working at BGR, he was elected chairman of the National Republican Committee. As chairman he was responsible for deciding which candidates would receive financial support from the RNC. If they won, they were grateful and would soon have the pleasure of being lobbied by the man who had decided to give them financial support. The conflict of interest was brazen but commonplace: DNC chairman Ron Brown had rigged a similar arrangement for himself with his fellow Democrats.

BGR was—and still is, though without Barbour—a Republican firm. From the most powerful partners to the lowliest receptionists, it hired only Republicans. It lobbied Republicans only on behalf of positions congenial to Republicans. One-party firms are rare in Washington, where a bland and carefully balanced bipartisanship is a surer guarantee of a broad client base and acts as a hedge against the ever-shifting allocation of power. But among the newly emerging Republican majority of the 1990s, Barbour’s firm gained a reputation for excellent ideological hygiene. “There were some things we wouldn’t do,” Barbour told me. (He may be the first lobbyist ever to utter those words.) “We didn’t represent just anybody. We had to agree with the underlying principle, at least. We were always pro-business. We wouldn’t do protectionism. We wouldn’t do labor issues.”

They did, however, do tobacco. Professional good-government types look on Barbour’s lobbying career with horror, and when you ask why, they’ll likely point to a single line item from 1997, slipped into an omnibus spending bill hours before the bill was voted on. In its combination of sneakiness and audacity, the incident has become part of the Barbour legend. 

At the time the large tobacco companies were paying vast sums to state governments as compensation for medical expenses the states incurred treating residents with tobacco-related illness. The companies reasoned that the payments were essentially taxes that they should be able to write off their federal tax bill. The argument was good enough for Barbour. The former head of the Republican National Committee went to see Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. He arrived in the final hours of a furious battle over a balanced federal budget, just in time to draft a provision and tuck it into the law without debate. For several weeks it looked as if he had saved the companies $50 million. Another day, another dollar: or rather another million dollars, the fee he earned from his tobacco clients, according to press reports. Weeks later, however, the provision was uncovered and brought to light—you never know what you’ll find when you start reading legislation. It was reversed after a suitable uproar. Barbour kept his fee and his tobacco clients.

For all its certified Republican fondness for limited government, BGR was, like all Washington lobbying firms, a creature of big government. Big government is what made Haley Barbour rich. Without it no one would have needed to hire him to beg Congress or the executive branch for loopholes, exemptions, tax credits, line items, carve-outs, extenders, earmarks, or any other of its infinite blandishments. Because the primary tool of lobbying is talk, it is a low-expense, high-reward business. Of all the methods of Beltway banditry—public relations, advertising, polling, image consulting, campaign management—it is by far the most lucrative, with profit margins often reaching 50 percent. Barbour and his partners sold the firm in 1999 to the international marketing company Interpublic. The New York Times reported the price to be $20 million, paid on condition that Barbour and his partners continue to run the business. Which he did until he heard Mississippi’s call.

So deeply was Barbour enmeshed in the money culture of Washington that he even put up money for a restaurant in partnership with Tommy Boggs, a fellow lobbyist (Democratic flavored) with a reputation as large as Barbour’s. Called the Caucus Room, it is less an eatery than a staging area for Washington operators. The fare is steak and martinis, the prices are inflated beyond reason, the décor is all mahogany and manly leather, and the floor plan ensures a dozen nooks and crannies and tucked-away rooms for private parties. Walking in you can’t help but think that there’s one restaurant designer who’s seen too many episodes of West Wing. Except the Caucus Room is real, and it was an instant success with Barbour’s friends on Capitol Hill. Over one two-year period, Bloomberg News reported, members of Congress spent more than $300,000 at the Caucus Room, with an average bill of $1,140. Barbour has since sold his stake, but for a time his involvement with the restaurant was almost a parody of Washington insiderdom—a Christopher Buckley novel come horribly to life. A congressman could pay Barbour’s restaurant for a private room to host his fundraiser, at which, as often as not, someone from Barbour’s firm would show up with other lobbyists to give him a donation for his fundraiser which, if everybody was lucky, would help him get reelected to Congress where, according to plan, he could be lobbied by Barbour himself. 

Feeding, funding, and finagling: Haley Barbour provided one-stop-shopping for all your Beltway needs. 

I asked Eddie Mahe, a longtime Republican consultant and a man Barbour calls his mentor, about what role the lobbying career might play in Barbour’s run.

“If he does run for president,” Mahe said, “there is no doubt that you will see lots of ads in the primaries branding him a rich, slick Washington lobbyist. But he’s astute enough to understand the vulnerability. He’ll frame the issue the way he wants it framed.”

For the moment, this is how he wants it framed: “The first thing a president’s going to have to do when he takes his hand off the Bible is start lobbying. He’s going to need to lobby Congress. He’s going to need to lobby the bureaucracy. He’s going to need to lobby the governors. He’s going to need to lobby our allies and our international competitors. 

“And I’m a pretty good lobbyist.”

Will this line sell? 

“He’ll make that case very well,” said Patrick Griffin, a Democratic lobbyist and a sometime professional antagonist to Barbour. “He could say, Okay, look at me. I’m governor of Mississippi, and I’ve been very successful. I’ve been a lobbyist in Washington, and I was very successful. So what about it? Are you going to evaluate me on my scorecard or something else?

“He could dare ’em to make an issue of it. He’s got the personality to do that. And he’d win the argument.

“Besides,” Griffin added, “does he look like a slick Washington lobbyist to you?”

“When I first ran for governor,” Barbour told me, “my opponent attacked me as a Washington lobbyist. So we did some research. It showed that people thought I’d be a better governor because I’d been a lobbyist. Before Katrina, 37 percent of the state budget of Mississippi came from the federal government: Medicaid, highway funds, aid to education. People knew I understood the federal government. People knew I had a lot of friends in the federal government. And they knew it might come in handy.”

Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the morning of August 29, 2005. It is by some measures the greatest natural disaster in American history. It was surely the governor’s finest hour. After 20 months in office Barbour was already popular with voters and—a neater trick—successful with a strongly Democratic and hostile legislature. In his first year he forced through a tort reform that at a single stroke defanged the state’s bullying trial lawyers and transformed Mississippi’s legal climate, bringing back some of the doctors and medical services that had fled to avoid crushing insurance premiums. For perhaps the first time in the state’s history, he introduced honest accounting into the budget, closing a $700 million deficit and beginning an unbroken string of balanced budgets, with only a single tax increase, on cigarettes. 

In a dark irony, Katrina made the state’s budget-balancing easier. The devastation reached 200 miles inland, killing 230 Mississippians, destroying 60,000 houses, and leaving more than 100,000 homeless—90 percent of the population in the state’s lower six counties. (The homeless rate in New Orleans and surrounding areas, by contrast, was 40 percent.) 

No one has plausibly assessed Barbour’s performance during Katrina as anything short of stupendous. “Right man, right place, right time,” said Sid Salter, a reporter for the Jackson Clarion Ledger. Salter accompanied Barbour on helicopter tours of the devastated region and recalls the governor weeping at the sight. “We all had tears in our eyes,” Salter said. “I saw hardened crime reporters crying, guys who’d seen just about everything.” Even today Barbour wells up when he talks about Katrina: “It was like the hand of God had reached down and swept everything away. I mean, there was nothing left.”

The hurricane and its aftermath summoned two talents that Barbour had in abundance: the ability to create organizations on the fly, and the ability to persuade people to give him lots of money. On the ground he oversaw the creation ex nihilo of emergency medical centers, bases for search and rescue operations, distribution systems for food and water, and, perhaps most impressive, the useful deployment of an army of volunteers from around the country and the world that would eventually number close to one million. Marsha Barbour became a kind of folk hero for spending weeks in the remotest parts of the state where help was scarce. Meanwhile, Barbour buried Washington in requests for aid. Over the next three months, he made 19 visits to the capital and was responsible for designing every federal aid package that came to the Gulf, not merely to Mississippi. At last count, the federal government had given Barbour’s state $24 billion in aid. The state budget isn’t quite $6 billion. 

Henry Barbour, Haley’s nephew and closest political confidant and a lobbyist in Mississippi, said the talk about a “slick Washington lobbyist” ceased after Katrina. “When he was flying to Washington, setting up camp on Capitol Hill, getting help from federal agencies you’ve never heard of, people started to think, Say, maybe this lobbying thing isn’t so bad.”

Now the federal aid is trickling to an end, along with Mississippi’s $2.4 billion share of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, also known as the Obama stimulus. Like most Republican governors, Barbour opposed the stimulus on principle and used it to balance his state’s budget. Barbour’s new budget plan cuts spending on most state agencies by 8 percent or more. I asked him if the cuts from his previous budgets had hurt state services. 

“Oh no,” he said. “Have there been a couple state parks that were closed at one point for a while? Yeah. But those weren’t used that much. In terms of the core functions of government, law enforcement, education, roads, we’re fine. There’s a humongous amount of money being spent on K through 12.”

We were flying to an event in the governor’s state plane, and from a thousand feet Mississippi looked lovely. He told me the legislature came back in January, and he expected many bloody battles over his proposed budget. The legislature would recess in the spring, and then  .  .  .

And then, I said, you can tell us if you’re going to run for president?

“I expect a decision around then,” he said. 

I told him something his nephew Henry had told me in San Diego: “All the people who say Haley Barbour can’t be president because he had a career in Washington are people who have a career in Washington.”

Barbour laughed. 

“People will tell you there are a lot of handicaps,” he said. “I’m governor of a very poor state. They’ll say that’s a handicap. People will tell you it’s a handicap to be from the South. I had an office in Washington for 19 years, working as a lobbyist. I have an accent. People will tell you those are handicaps.”

He leaned back and folded his hands across his chest, looking to me like a man who’s made up his mind. 

“But I don’t think so.”

 Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard and the author of Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College.

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