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The Real Bobby Jindal and the Redemption of an Off Night

5:43 PM, Feb 25, 2009 • By MARY KATHARINE HAM
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It is the overwhelming consensus that Bobby Jindal's delivery of the response to the President's address last night was not good.

It is truly too bad that Jindal didn't shine last night, but it was not his last chance to do so. There seems to be a panicky vibe to the panning of Jindal's speech, both on the left and right today. Perhaps that's understandable. Conservatives, frustrated by years of Bush's inexpert speeches, McCain's evaporating charisma at the podium, and Palin's uncertainty under questioning, were looking for deliverance in Bobby Jindal on all fronts. They didn't get it. Liberals are both gleeful at the comparative superiority of Barack Obama and happy to scuttle one of Republicans' only young, promising stars by turning him into a punch line after one speech.

Liberals who thought Sarah Palin's brilliant RNC speech performance meant absolutely nothing are sure that Jindal's off night means everything. Conservatives who decried Obama for being nothing but a good speechifier seem to be dismissing Jindal's substantial record in light of one night of sub-par speechifying.

Everyone should just tap the brakes before hurtling to foregone conclusions. Gov. Jindal is a demonstrably smart, young, interesting politician with a compelling personal story. If you watch his past TV appearances, you'll find he has always communicated a surprising gravitas, despite his youthful looks. When questioned by reporters, he's comfortable with talking points, anecdotes, and data.

It is unfortunate that he sounded over-rehearsed and sing-songy in his first major national address, but the State of the Union is always a tough act to follow. Even when the orator is not one of Obama's skill, the abrupt shift from the pomp of an applause-filled joint session of Congress to the spare presentation of the solitary response is rough on a speaker. Who could forget the wandering eyebrow of Tim Kaine's 2006 rebuttal?

Today, the Internet is abuzz with comparisons of Jindal to "Kenneth the Page," the naive, irretrievably nerdy bumpkin from the NBC comedy "30 Rock." The comparison is unfortunate for several reasons, not least of all because it signals the undue influence of Tina Fey on national politics may continue unabated. It's also catchy, and was not terribly unfair after last night's speech. But on any other day of his career, it would have been a total mischaracterization of his skills, which are considerable.

The Jindal Michael Gerson writes about today is the one I've seen in action; the real one:

At a recent meeting of conservative activists, Jindal had little to say about his traditional social views or compelling personal story. Instead, he uncorked a fluent, substantive rush of policy proposals and achievements, covering workforce development, biodiesel refineries, quality assurance centers, digital media, Medicare parts C and D, and state waivers to the CMS (whatever that is).

Some have compared Jindal to Obama, but the new president has always been more attracted to platitudes than to policy. Rush Limbaugh has anointed Jindal "the next Ronald Reagan." But Reagan enjoyed painting on a large ideological canvas. In person, Jindal's manner more closely resembles another recent president: Bill Clinton. Like Clinton (a fellow Rhodes scholar), Jindal has the ability to overwhelm any topic with facts and thoughtful arguments -- displaying a mastery of detail that encourages confidence. Both speak of complex policy issues with the world-changing intensity of a late-night dorm room discussion.

He proved his mettle this morning on the "Today Show," when he was back to his sharp, serious self. In the coming years, just as in the years preceding last night's performance, he will demonstrate it time and time again.

I imagine, even if comedians feel the need to saddle Jindal with an unrepresentative caricature, ala Chevy Chase's klutzy Gerald Ford, the American people will be more fair to him. He deserves it.