The strange death of Victor White and the strange dearth of national news about it

By Robert Mann

It’s been more than a month since the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., captivated the nation. It started with the Aug. 9 fatal shooting of Michael Brown in the majority-black suburb of St. Louis. Brown, a 18-year-old black man, died at the hands of a white Ferguson police officer who shot him six times after a street confrontation.

Thank God for the news media that remain focused on the investigation into the shooting, as well as the continuing protests.

Were it not for the national attention, local authorities might have escaped scrutiny. Instead, the coverage forced Attorney General Eric Holder to order a federal civil rights investigation into Brown’s death.

Bravo to the black residents of Ferguson, whose long days of massive protests focused the nation on their years of harassment by the city’s predominantly white police force.

Meanwhile, 740 miles to the south, the good people of New Iberia, La., must wonder if they should start a riot to get the national media to pay attention to what happened in their town on the night of March 2.

In many ways, the tragic events in Iberia Parish are no less shocking and even more perplexing than whatever occurred in Ferguson.

Here’s what happened: After stopping and searching 22-year-old Victor White III, an Iberia Parish sheriff’s deputy arrested him for cocaine possession. The deputy allegedly found the drug on White after searching him a second time. White’s wrists were handcuffed behind his back and he was placed in the rear seat of the patrol car.

Shortly after arriving at the sheriff’s office, however, he was dead from a gunshot wound.

The first official report of the incident, a statement by the Louisiana State Police, claimed White “became uncooperative and refused to exit the deputy’s patrol car.” As the deputy called for backup, the State Police said, “White produced a handgun and fired one round striking himself in the back.”

From there, it devolved into a jumble of official contradictions and confounding questions.

Iberia Parish Coroner Dr. Carl Ditch, in a report released in August, disputed parts of the initial State Police report. White had been shot through his lateral right chest, Ditch said. Yet, he concluded that White had committed suicide.

You read that correctly.

The coroner determined that a left-handed man, hands shackled behind his back in the rear of a police cruiser, found a gun, contorted his body Houdini-style and shot himself between his right breast and right armpit.

How he supposedly obtained this gun has not been explained. How a deputy might have searched White twice, found cocaine, but never detected a gun, has not been explained. How a gun might have ended up in the back of a police car has not been explained. Why authorities originally said White was uncooperative, but later changed their story and did not mention it, has not been explained. Why authorities never tested White’s hands and clothing for gunpowder residue has not been explained.  (His clothes reportedly were destroyed.)

Most perplexing, of course, is how White managed to shoot himself in the chest. This has not been explained. A State Police report was completed in recent days but has not yet been made public.

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Louisiana Democrats’ big favor for David Vitter

U.S. Sen. David Vitter

U.S. Sen. David Vitter

By Robert Mann

When Louisiana Democrats try to defeat Sen. David Vitter for governor next year, they’ll almost certainly roll out the fact that Vitter was embroiled in a very public and humiliating prostitution scandal in 2007.

In some fashion, they’ll ask the state’s voters, “Do you want someone as sleazy as David Vitter as your governor?” It’s not a bad question and it might cause some voters to pause before handing over the Governor’s Mansion to someone like Vitter.

Until this week, we didn’t know what the Republican response to that question might be. But now we do.

They will rightly shoot back, “This from the party that endorsed Edwin Edwards, an unrepentant felon, for Congress last year?”

It’s a good rejoinder that wouldn’t have been available to the GOP until Monday, when the Democratic State Central Committee overwhelming embraced Edwards, a sure loser in the race to represent the 24th most Republican district in the United States Congress.

But the Democrats endorsed the old crook anyway, taking a nostalgic stroll down Corruption Lane. They’d apparently rather revel in the good old days of Democratic cronyism. They’d rather embrace a disgraceful felon like Edwards than consider what it might take to rehabilitate their dying party.

By the way, the embrace of Edwards not only deprives the Democratic Party of any high moral ground in next year’s governor’s race; it also makes it much harder for Democratic leaders to credibly attack the cronyism in Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration.

The party’s endorsement won’t help Edwards get elected to Congress, but it sure might help David Vitter get elected governor.

The sad demise of the Louisiana Democratic Party

Former Gov. Edwin Edwards last March at the Baton Rouge Press Club (Photo by Robert Mann)

Former Gov. Edwin Edwards last March at the Baton Rouge Press Club (Photo by Robert Mann)

By Robert Mann

I’ve been around politics long enough to know that elections are usually choices between the lesser of two, or many, evils. There is no perfect candidate, just as there is no perfect spouse, friend or job. Most of life, in fact, is a series of choices among imperfect options.

Yet, there are certainly completely unacceptable candidates for public office, just as there are individuals totally unsuited for marriage or friendship.

When it comes to political candidates, former Gov. Edwin Edwards is unacceptable in almost every way.

That’s why it was so disappointing to learn that the state’s Democratic State Central Committee had overwhelmingly endorsed Edwards for Congress on Monday. In embracing Edwards’ campaign, the state’s Democrats endorsed someone who represents the worst of the state’s political history – a sorry legacy of corruption that has now sullied their party and finally persuaded me to change my party registration.

It’s not just that Edwards spent eight years moldering in a federal prison after being convicted on 17 counts of racketeering, extortion, fraud and conspiracy.

It’s not just that he’s 87 years old and probably not up to the physical challenge of representing the district while commuting each week to Washington. (I actually believe that Edwards’ greatest fear is that he might win.)

It’s not just that over a lifetime in politics he demonstrated no concern for ethical behavior (this is, after all, the man who once boasted to “60 Minutes” about selling seats on the state’s Mineral Board).

It’s not just that his candidacy seems to be driven primarily by an insatiable appetite for attention and an acute hunger for acceptance after his very public humiliation.

It’s not just that his election would further embarrass a state that really should stop reminding the nation how much we tolerate corruption.

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LBJ’s Mad Men and the Ad that Changed American Politics

Daisy Girl 2

By Robert Mann

Fifty years ago – on the night of Monday, Sept. 7, 1964 – an innocent little girl plucking flower petals in a sun-splashed field helped usher in a revolution in American political advertising. The 60-second television spot that featured her disjointed counting exploded, literally and figuratively, all notions of what it meant to effectively persuade voters with paid political advertising.

The little girl counted as she plucked flower petals. Unseen birds chirped happily. As her counting ended, viewers suddenly heard a mission control announcer begin a countdown. As he neared zero, the girl’s image froze as the camera zoomed into her right eye until her pupil filled the screen and was replaced by a nuclear blast and mushroom cloud. As the apocalyptic scene unfolded, President Lyndon Johnson’s reedy drawl entered the spot, ending with the admonition, “we must either love each other or we must die.”

The so-called “Daisy Girl” spot created by Johnson’s New York advertising firm aired only once as a paid commercial during the 1964 presidential campaign. An estimated 50 million voters saw it during NBC’s “Monday Night at the Movies” – the film was “David and Bathsheba.” Another 50 million or more saw it again, or for the first time, later that week when the three television networks aired the unique, powerful spot in their newscasts.

The spot, created by the ad firm Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB), was actually called “Peace, Little Girl,” but its message was anything but peaceful. It was a fierce assault on Johnson’s Republican opponent, Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona. It was as clever and creative as any attack ad ever produced in American politics. Its images were arresting and unexpected and its message – Johnson was a man of peace, Goldwater would destroy the world – was abundantly clear.

Without showing his image or even speaking his name, DDB masterfully evoked the widespread fears about a potential Goldwater presidency. The Republican candidate’s remarkable absence was the essence of its brilliance, and the reason it and the other DDB spots that followed transformed political advertising: These spots had such a powerful impact not for what they said, but what did not require words at all.

For years, Goldwater had spoken recklessly about nuclear war and nuclear weaponry. He had opposed the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. He had called the nuclear bomb “merely another weapon” in America’s arsenal. When President John F. Kennedy had declared America’s intent to send men to the moon, Goldwater responded, “I don’t want to hit the moon. I want to lob one [presumably a nuclear missile] into the men’s room of the Kremlin and make sure I hit it.” He favored giving NATO commanders in Western Europe authority to use tactical nuclear weapons without White House approval.

Most famously, the Arizona senator had accepted his party’s nomination in San Francisco that July, where he declared, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Technically, he might have been correct about relentlessly defending freedom, but his unfortunate words gave Johnson and his team further ammunition – and license – to brand their opponent a warmonger.

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It’s about Mary Landrieu’s heart, not her home

Sen. Mary Landrieu

Sen. Mary Landrieu

By Robert Mann

“Home is always the impossible subject, multilayered and maddening.” ― Paul Theroux.

Now that her Republican antagonists have decided not to trounce her at the polls but, rather, bounce her from the ballot, Sen. Mary Landrieu’s home has become a hot campaign issue. The charge is that the New Orleans house that Landrieu claims as her legal abode is occupied, instead, by her parents.

One of Landrieu’s challengers, Rob Maness, and former opponent state Sen. Paul Hollis say the senator does not live in the house, has no home in the state and, therefore, is not eligible to be elected senator. Hollis, now a supporter of Landrieu’s other Republican opponent, Rep. Bill Cassidy, is suing to disqualify her.

The challenge won’t succeed, as the U.S. Constitution sets the eligibility requirements for a senator. Owning a home is not among them. To the Republicans’ evident dismay, it turns out that renters and people living with their parents are entitled to vote and serve in public office.

This silly debate does raise some legitimate questions. Exactly what is “home” and why is it so important in politics?

In my youth, if someone asked where “home” was, I wasn’t sure. I was born in Beaumont, Texas, where my family lived until I was 12. We moved to Shreveport, then to New Mexico and later to Leesville, La., where we lived until I left for college in Monroe. After graduation, I moved to Ruston. After about a year, it was back to Monroe, then off to Shreveport, before moving to Washington, D.C.

During those early vagabond years, I could never truly define “home.” Beaumont was my hometown, but where was “home” exactly? When I lived in Washington, home increasingly became Louisiana. It was where my heart was. As much as I liked Washington, I could never call it home.

As a senator, Landrieu has worked in Washington for almost 18 years. Despite the inconvenient fact that her job requires her to appear at the U.S. Capitol, she calls Louisiana home. That she also owns a home in Washington, as do many members of Congress, doesn’t negate her Louisiana citizenship.

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Says the Louisiana GOP: buy a house — and keep your mouths shut

By Robert Mann

I’ve already written about the silly lawsuit by state Sen. Paul Hollis challenging Sen. Mary Landrieu’s candidacy based on the question of her legal residency. Hollis will almost certainly lose, because the suit is clearly frivolous. The Constitution sets the requirements for a U.S. senator, not state legislatures and state judges.

But the fact that Hollis and other Republicans are screaming so loudly about the question of Landrieu’s property ownership suggests that it’s not about her devotion to Louisiana or her strong self-identification with the Bayou State.

It’s strictly about home ownership.

Which raises this question? Do Hollis and Landrieu’s major Republican opponents, Rep. Bill Cassidy and Rob Maness, believe that a person must own property to run for elective office? Are those living with family members, but do not have their names on a title or a mortgage, unqualified to serve the public?

That was once the rule for participation in public life in this country — for voting and holding office. But we stopped requiring property ownership long ago. Is this a sign that Republicans are reviving ownership of property as a test for holding office?

Strictly speaking, such a test would not prevent Landrieu from running. She owns property in Louisiana.

But the larger question is: what hurdles do Republicans like Hollis (and now Donald Trump) believe that candidates ought to clear before they are qualified for elective office?

Trump, who supports Cassidy, has made it clear where he stands. He tweeted on Friday, “Senator Landrieu, If you are a Senator representing Louisiana, then you SHOULD own a home in the state. Send @ to the Senate!”

Among those who re-tweeted Trump’s comment was Cassidy’s press secretary, Jillian Rogers.

Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 1.27.58 PM

While some prominent Republicans believe that candidates must own a home before running for office, other prominent voices in Louisiana Republican Party circles seem to be arguing that citizens have no right criticize public officials unless they are willing to challenge that official in an election.

Last year, Kyle Plotkin — then Gov. Bobby Jindal’s deputy chief of staff and now his chief of staff — fired off an angry tweet at me, suggesting my criticisms of Jindal weren’t valid unless I ran for governor myself. “i’ve got an idea,” Plotkin told me. “run 4 gov. Put ur ideas up 4 debate instead of just tweeting & complaining.”

IMG_2644photo (2)

As I observed at the time,

Let’s give Plotkin the benefit of the doubt. Apparently he has a 14-year-old son who has hacked his Twitter account. (And he clearly does not know how to spell “your.”)

Just contemplate what it means if that’s truly the opinion of the governor’s senior staff — that you shouldn’t speak out or criticize the governor unless you become a candidate for public office. Everyone else, keep quiet. The public sphere isn’t for mere citizens!!

That approach to public dissent has now found its way into the commentary of Jindal’s good friend and acolyte and LSU Board of Supervisors member, Rolfe McCollister.

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The drums of war, again

By Robert Mann

Hear that? It’s the sound of beating drums. They’re war drums, to be precise. Our political percussion section loves to play these familiar tunes. It practices its bellicose beats at every opportunity.

It’s remarkable how eager we are to dance to those ancient rhythms. Want to persuade Americans to support another war? Easy. Show videos of brutality against Americans by a violent group nobody knew about six months ago and scream that they’ll soon attack us on American soil. In short order, we will whip ourselves into a mad frenzy and march off to another war.

The latest existential threat is the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, also known as ISIS. The ruthless group not only killed American journalist James Foley, it controls large swaths of Middle East territory. Now, a growing chorus of hawks believes we must bomb them.

Perhaps we can destroy them from the air. If not, however, we might find ourselves inextricably drawn into another ground war.After more than a decade of hopeless, tragic fighting in that region, are we seriously thinking of rushing back in? Have we lost our collective minds?

Among those using the ISIS threat to goad us into another war is Gov. Bobby Jindal, who questioned President Barack Obama’s mettle in an op-ed on the Fox News website. “The murderous fools who cut the heads off of Americans must be destroyed, and sent to their reward, such as it is, in the next life,” Jindal wrote.

It’s not only Jindal.

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