Bobby Jindal told a beautiful story. Are we all terrible people for ignoring it?

In his Republican response following President Barack Obama’s address to Congress on Tuesday, Louisiana’s governor was many things. Chief among them, as any number of YouTube compilations will attest, was awkward. Attempting to emulate the genial calm and folksiness of Ronald Reagan, the generally eloquent Jindal misfired badly. From Mr. Rogers to “Sesame Street” to Kenneth the Page from “30 Rock,” Jindal’s slow, halting over-enunciations and his robotic Southern drawl have drawn numerous unflattering (but painfully fair) comparisons.

But even aside from tone, the speech was also errant in substance. Jindal cited the response to Hurricane Katrina as an example of how government has failed us, but he failed to note that the chief problem was the Republican administration and the corners it had cut in terms of both preparedness and response capability. Smugly, he mocked plans for a light-rail line from Las Vegas to Los Angeles as a wasteful, exorbitant use of tax dollars — despite the fact that Americans overwhelmingly support expansion of regional mass-transit systems.

Perhaps most nauseating of all, Jindal — governor of the state that nearly saw its largest city wiped off the map in a major natural disaster — actually mocked funding “something called volcano monitoring.” As a friend of mine commented during the speech, “the cognitive dissonance: It is delicious.”

But even if the 90 percent of Jindal’s speech that has been widely lambasted was an utter miscalculation, that still leaves the 10 percent that was supposed to be the main focus. Entitled “Americans Can Do Anything,” the speech was supposed to highlight Jindal’s (parents’) immigrant roots, and engender those warm, fuzzy feelings Americans tend to get from such stories.

As Jindal recounted his parents’ wonder at America’s stocked shelves, boundless opportunities and friendly people, it should have been easy for all of us, immigrant or not, to get caught up in the moment (again, lethally saccharine tone aside). One assumes the speech was meant to inspire us all in our nation’s dark hour by reminding us of the high regard in which people across the world hold America — or at least once did.

This gets at the main point that Jindal seems to have missed completely: this isn’t the nineteenth or twentieth centuries. Long gone are the days when bleary-eyed foreigners, exhausted from a fruitless day of toil and hardship, would look to the distant shores of America for relief, redemption and prosperity.

Today is far removed from 1959, when my grandfather boarded ship, plane, train and bus to get to college in Carbondale, Ill. It’s also far removed from 1971, when Jindal’s own father and mother settled in Baton Rouge, also for an education. Today, illegal immigrants are actually leaving this country voluntarily because they can’t find jobs.

Consider the full sadness of Jindal’s errant perception of what America needed to hear from the Republican party: Jindal was selected to give the Republican response because he was a fresh, different face for the party that has become known for its blandness and whiteness. He was to inspire and awe (like Obama at the 2004 Democratic National Convention) with his colorful life story, one so uniquely American that it has become a rarity in the GOP.

And he failed. Badly.

Not only did he fail, but in his failure Jindal showed himself to be just as out of touch and imperceptive to America’s role in the world today as anyone else in his imploding party. It was quite the death blow to a party that thought it had found its own articulate savior of color.

No, we are not terrible people for completely discounting the story Bobby Jindal told. Far from it, the fact that viewers didn’t get caught up in the poetic beauty masking an all-too-familiar (failed), anti-government ideology shows that we’ve grown up as a nation. Where it would have once been taboo for compassionate people to mock a man who told his immigrant story, our nation has emerged to a point where we can ask “Okay and so what?” without feeling the guilt of ethnocentrism.

Perhaps this is the first sign of the post-racial society we all believed Obama’s election had initiated. Obviously, this nation has a long way to go, and it is unfortunate that Jindal had to be the first casualty, but he may recover. As we approach the day when minorities will collectively be the majority in this country, our nation is better off knowing that a bad policy is a bad policy, no matter how far away its espouser’s parents may have been born.

Imran Syed was the Daily’s editorial page editor in 2007. He can be reached at

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