By Robert Mann
I don’t believe in reincarnation, but if I did, I would swear that John Maginnis had been a corrupt Louisiana state senator in a previous life.
How else to explain how this legendary political journalist, who died Sunday at age 66, developed his uncanny ability to read the minds of the pols he covered in more than four decades of writing about Louisiana’s political culture?
In my 30-plus years in and around Louisiana politics, I never met a non-politician who understood the state’s political system better than John. For those of us who write about politics, he was the gold standard by which we all measured ourselves.
He was, as Huey Long once said about himself, sui generis.
John was born with much of his genius for politics, but it wasn’t all intuition and instinct. He also worked hard. He did the interviews and showed up at the hearings or press conferences.
Like any good journalist, he cultivated his sources, had a keen sense of when he was being lied to and was attentive to the nuance in politicians’ statements that are often meant to conceal the real stories about the bills or issues in question.
John did his homework. Whenever he called me about a story (during my years working for Russell Long, John Breaux or Kathleen Blanco), I always had the sense that he knew ten times more than me about the matter in question. He needed to confirm a fact or get a quote, but it was always quite clear that he knew the issue cold.
His mind was quick and razor sharp. He could size up a corrupt back-room deal in a New Orleans minute and write a column about it, in fluid prose, in an hour.
But, perhaps, what made John such a great journalist was his warm, easy personality. People liked talking to him. He was a charming conversationalist and among the kindest journalists I’ve ever known. I imagine many a legislator over the years finished an interview with John and wondered, “How did he get me to say all that?!”
And, yet, John was not flashy. He was soft-spoken, talked a bit fast in the most unusual blend of a Baton Rouge-New Orleans accent, and he had an infectious laugh. He was just great company.
I first met John in 1983. I was a young political reporter for the Shreveport Journal, covering the epic governor’s race between former Gov. Edwin Edwards and Gov. Dave Treen (the subject of John’s classic 1984 book, The Last Hayride). Even then, John was a giant, widely regarded as the most perceptive political journalist in the state. On the other hand, I was a nobody. But John was kind to me and included me in the group of veteran journalists that gathered at day’s end for dinner and drinks.
It was among the proudest moments of my young journalistic career when I realized that John found something I’d said on the last day of the 1983 campaign worthy of quoting in his The Last Hayride. If that seems like a small matter to you, then you don’t understand how much young journalists like me idolized John and admired him for the enormous respect he commanded among journalists and politicians, alike.
Maybe some of that stature came just from the way he approached politics. You hang around this business long enough and it can make you jaded and cynical. It happens to journalists all the time.
John was no fool, of course. He understood the corruption and artifice of politics as well as anyone. That said, I always thought his most attractive quality was that he never allowed cynicism to creep into his writing and analysis.
Clear-eyed skepticism, yes. Cynicism, never.
John might have disapproved of the way legislators and governors governed, but he respected the process and the system. In fact, he devoted his life to exploring that system and interpreting it for the rest of us.
So far, in my lifetime, no one did it better.