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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But some Republicans have started to see more than a fundraising genius in the good old boy from Yazoo. “Being a very successful two-term governor makes a difference,” Gillespie said. “He’s still a hail-fellow well-met, he still loves people, he’s still a master of the political game. But after Katrina”—the hurricane that wiped out a third of Mississippi in Barbour’s second year in office—“after the budget fights he’s been in, taking on the trial lawyers, there’s a gravitas there now. It used to be everyone just called him ‘Haley.’ Now they’re just as likely to call him ‘Governor Barbour.’ ”

But President Barbour? All year he has been deflecting questions about his presidential ambitions, saying he wouldn’t consider the topic while he concentrated on the business at hand—a big Republican win in November. (“The main thing,” he would say, “is to keep the main thing the main thing.” This is one of his “Barbourisms.” Being a cracker-barrel aphorist is also enough to make a politician colorful nowadays. Another Barbourism, slightly more ominous: “Ask for forgiveness, not permission.”) Yet in San Diego, with the election two weeks gone, Barbour still wouldn’t budge when reporters pressed him, beyond an admission that he’d think about the matter and decide next spring. 

In San Diego he was surrounded by governors who with little effort can see themselves as president too: Rick Perry of Texas, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, Mitch Daniels of Indiana, and probably more we haven’t heard of. When the governors lined up for a picture in the Hilton ballroom, however, it was Barbour who maneuvered himself into the middle of the line-up. Their bubbles didn’t matter here, and no one tried to stop him. 

"It’s not really a delta,” Bubba Mott said. “It’s an effluvial plain. The real delta is down south, of course, by New Orleans. But we like to call it the Mississippi Delta. Sounds better than Mississippi flood plain, doesn’t it?”

Whatever you call this lowland crescent tilting toward the Mississippi, plain or delta, Yazoo City is on the edge of it. The writer Peter Robinson once noted an unfailing distinction between Northerners and Southerners: If you mention the name of Haley Barbour’s hometown, the Northerner will try to suppress a snicker, and the Southerner will wonder what in the world the Northerner is snickering at. Yazoo City is “the gateway to the Mississippi Delta,” or flood plain, and also the county seat of Yazoo County. It sits with its back to the last undulations of the Mississippi hill country and its face to the Yazoo River, canalized by a levee to the west. In between lies the city itself, which Mr. Mott admitted “is not what it was.” 

Old photos of downtown from the first years after the Second World War show a thriving commercial district, five blocks long, lined on either side with cars and jitneys parked up against sidewalks filled with men in boaters and women in complicated hats. There were three restaurants, three theaters, and shops enough—“with fine merchandise,” Mr. Mott said—to satisfy the wants of the most cosmopolitan Yazooan. From downtown the residential neighborhoods radiated out toward the schools, a white school near the white neighborhood, a school for blacks near the black neighborhood on the other side of the railroad tracks. Everyone walked everywhere, Mr. Mott said, to school or to town for shopping, because everything you needed was only blocks away. On Friday nights the streets would swell with arrivals from the surrounding farms and plantations for the high school football games, giving downtown the feel of a fairground. Once the game started, the streets were deserted and the shops would close. When it was over, Main Street flooded again with customers and the shops would throw open their doors and the theaters resume their entertainments. This was the Yazoo City that Haley Barbour was born into and would soon see fade away.

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