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Bobby Jindal: The GOP's Rising Star?

Bobby Jindal: The Future Of The GOP?
Bobby Jindal: The Future Of The GOP? 12:16

If you watched the Republican response to President Obama's address to Congress last Tuesday, you saw a rather awkward young man taking his best shot following one of the most powerful political orators the country has seen in ages.

While Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana, may not be quite ready for primetime, he does represent the party's attempt to broaden its base, to attract minorities - in short to reinvent itself. It's pretty remarkable for a 37-year-old first generation American policy wonk to be regarded as the Grand Old Party's new young savior.

In New Orleans' Jackson Square, the strains of "Sweet Georgia Brown" accompany just about the most popular, yet unlikely, man in town: Bobby Jindal.

Jindal is not a musician, nor a restaurateur, but a mere governor, who after the Katrina debacle, is trying to put the "big un-easy" back on dry land. When asked by a tourist whether he'd be our next president, the governor replied, "No, no. I need to fix my state."

The son of immigrants, Ivy League educated, and all of 37 years old, Jindal has been called the great beige hope of the Republican Party.

"I think the Republican Party needs to stop thinking about who's the next messenger, is they need to stop thinking about how do they fix their party. We need to start thinking about how do we help fix our country?" Jindal told Safer.

He is the first non-white governor of Louisiana since Reconstruction, and in a state that has been described as "half under water, half under indictment," he's a far cry from what Louisiana voters had taken for granted: lily-white good ole boys who made more headlines for scandal and corruption than for governance.

This eager and ambitious young whirlwind is determined to change all that. He doesn't drink, doesn't smoke, doesn't swear and relentlessly hammers his message that the days of corruption and incompetence are over.

"I'm not going to take no for an answer on reforming our ethics laws," he said on election night.

"I think what voters were saying when elected me, 'We're tired of the past. We're tired of corrupt politics. We're tried of the same old politicians. We know we're better than that,'" Jindal told 60 Minutes correspondent Morley Safer.

"But one of the appeals of New Orleans and Louisiana was that it wasn't on the good list, that there was something wonderfully exotic and bad about New Orleans," Safer pointed out.

"We'll let Illinois have that reputation for a little while," Jindal replied.

If Jindal can truly change "business as usual" in Louisiana, it may be because he's an outsider. The son of immigrants who arrived from India in the early 70s, he was born in Baton Rouge. His mother earned a doctorate in nuclear physics; his father was a civil engineer.

Asked if he felt any racial tension growing up in Baton Rouge, Jindal said, "Not at all. You know, this has been a great place to grow up. The great thing about the people of Louisiana is that they accept you based on who you are."

That's quite a declaration in a state that not so long ago gave former Ku Klux Klansmen David Duke nearly 40 percent of the vote.

But that sunny "Leave it to Beaver" optimism is classic Bobby Jindal, a man so determined to be true blue American, he changed his name.

When he was born, Jindal was named Piyush. Asked where the name Bobby came from, Jindal told Safer, "Every day after school, I'd come home and I'd watch 'The Brady Bunch.' And I identified with Bobby, you know? He was about my age, and Bobby stuck."

But much of his Indian heritage didn't stick. In high school, he converted from his parents' Hindu faith to Catholicism, and he rejected their political party as well.

"I grew up in a time when there weren't a whole lot of Republicans in this state. But I identified with President Reagan. He was, I thought, a very successful president," he explained.

Jindal went to Brown University where he studied biology, trying to fulfill his parents' dream to become a doctor. He was admitted to Harvard Medical School and Yale Law, but declined both. Instead he accepted a Rhodes Scholarship, and by the ripe old age of 24 he was running the Louisiana healthcare system.

The editor of the New Orleans Times Picayune, Jim Amoss, took notice. "Clearly, an ambitious and very clever young man," Amoss remembered.

"A young man in a hurry," Safer remarked.

"But he's also a young man who, by nature, is cautious. There is not a touch of recklessness about him," Amoss said.

Jindal first ran for governor at the age of 31, but lost a close race. Then he was elected twice to Congress. In 2007, he ran for governor again, and won big.

Amoss says he did it by convincing even rural Cajun voters that he was one of them. The rallying cry was "Bubbas for Bobby."

"That seems a huge reach for people like that to vote for somebody as, quote, unquote, 'exotic' as Bobby Jindal," Safer said.

"He shares, in many ways, the conservative values of people in north Louisiana and then, the other big factor that I think played in north Louisiana, as well as south Louisiana, is Katrina," Amoss explained.

Hurricane Katrina and the bungled state and federal response more than anything else set the stage for change in Louisiana. Jindal took 60 Minutes to the still devastated Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans.

"Anybody watching what happened in 2005 should come away with the distinct conclusion we should never allow that to happen again," Jindal told Safer.

"You talk about bureaucratic indifference. You think that's particular to any party?" Safer asked.

"No, but I don't think as Americans we should accept anything other than excellence in our government. Look, I'm a Republican. I don't think government's the answer to every problem. But that doesn't mean we should accept incompetence," he said.

But where he seems to be making the biggest waves is in ethics reform. Just weeks after taking office he forced through several bills that among other things called for far more transparency in the financial dealings of politicians.

It was a radical break with a tradition established in the 1930s by that powerful and massively corrupt governor, Huey Long.

Long built the towering state Capitol building as a monument to himself. More recently, Governor Edwin Edwards boasted that the only way he'd be voted out of office was to be "caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy."

Edwards now resides in the slammer, convicted of racketeering. Jindal says the non-stop party is finally over. It's time for the nerds to take over.

"Politics used to be fun here. I mean-caught with hookers. Congressmen with a freezer full of cash," Safer remarked. "Is he just a little bit boring in the sense that he doesn't drink? He doesn't smoke. He's as straight an arrow as you can be."

"Well, is he boring? One person's boring is another person's competent. And does he lack flamboyance? I mean, look what flamboyance got us," Amoss replied.

"It is my hope to be the most boring but hopefully, one of the most effective governors in our state's history. Now, you're gonna meet my wife. Well, she's says we've got boring down right. She says, 'You've got that part down,'" Jindal told Safer.

Supriya Jindal rivals her husband in the brains department. She has an MBA and is one paper shy of a doctorate. But unlike her husband, she isn't so sure about that relentless political pursuit.

"I never imagined that we would be in a public life, you know? I always tease him, you know, 'Did we talk about this running for governor thing prior to getting married because I don't recall it?'" she told Safer.

"I was scared you'd say no," Bobby Jindal joked, laughing.

Despite her reluctance, they are quite the team, in both matters political and familial.

"You both had quite a scare a couple of years ago when you were having your third child. And you went into labor in the middle of the night. And he ended up delivering the baby, correct?" Safer asked.

"It's something that I never want to experience again," Supriya Jindal replied, laughing. "He did an incredible job. But, I'm the kinda person that likes to be in the hospital with medicine."

"Lotsa drugs," her husband added, laughing.

Little Slade Jindal came into the world in a hurry back in the summer of 2006 at home, with his then-congressman father forced to serve as midwife.

They have three children, aged 7, 4 and 2, who have made the governor's mansion their own, and inevitably being compared with the Obamas and their picture-perfect family life.

Asked if their family maintains any of the Indian traditions, Supriya Jindal told Safer, "Not too many."

"No, they've been here for so many years that…," her husband said.

"Years that we've sort of adapted. And we were raised as Americans, you know? We were raised as Louisianans. So, that's how we live our lives," Supriya Jindal explained.

He's a classic example of the American melting pot. This oyster and crawfish-eating Louisianian tends to downplay his ethnic background.

"When we sent a reporter and photographer to India to write about his family and their origins, the Jindal family was very queasy about that undertaking," Amoss said.

"He clearly presents himself as true blue American," Safer remarked.

"And he is the genuine article. He's deeply, by nature, deeply conservative, deeply patriotic."

He's also religious and conservative. He supports the teaching of intelligent design, wants to get tough on illegal immigration, is against stem cell research and abortion rights, and yet continues to challenge his own party.

"The reality is the Republican party got itself into trouble. And it got into trouble because the American people didn't see the party offering solutions to the problems they care about," he told Safer.

Asked if part of that is due to the legacy of George Bush, Jindal said, "I think like anything, there's some good and some bad, you know. Certainly, I was one that disagreed with his spending we've seen these last eight years. You've seen spending that if the Democrats had proposed some of this, the Republicans would have rightfully criticized it. And yet, it was accepted because it was done by a Republican Congress, Republican administration."

That kind of talk has gained him notice. His name was raised repeatedly as a potential running mate for John McCain. "When the campaign asked me to submit my information to be vetted, I declined politely. I said that I was honored that they would ask me. But, I've got the job that I want," he said.

"For the moment?" Safer asked.

"Well hopefully, not just for the moment. Hopefully, over the next seven years," the governor replied.

For the moment, he hardly represents a threat to President Obama.

But in Tuesday's Republican response to the president's speech before Congress, he accused the Democrats of bloated, wasteful spending in the stimulus package. "It's irresponsible and it's no way to strengthen our economy," Jindal said in his televised response.

Rush Limbaugh is still calling him "the next Ronald Reagan," and party heavyweight Newt Gingrich says he is the "most transformative young governor in the country."

"He tackles every issue, from spending to education to health to infrastructure to jobs, with a level of energy and a level of doing what makes sense, not asking what the old order said. And I think the result in Louisiana so far has been very spectacular," Gingrich told Safer.

"But beyond Louisiana, do you think he has what it takes?" Safer asked.

"He will automatically be a major contender for the presidency for many, many years. Remember, he'll be the same age as John McCain 34 years from now. So, he has a long time and he can do a lot of things," Gingrich pointed out.

"When you hear a Republican like Newt Gingrich mentioning your name, what goes through your mind?" Safer asked.

"Well, again, I think it's very flattering. We've just sworn in a new president of the United States. He's, you know, he's barely started. It's way too early to start thinking about who the leader of the party is. And for me, look, I've got no secret plan," Jindal said.

"But what were you doing in Iowa a coupla month ago?" Safer asked.

"Got a great invitation to come and speak to a wonderful group," Jindal replied.

His visit this fall to Iowa caused a stir, but his speech last Tuesday may have put those great expectations on hold, which may please his wife.

"When you see these speculative stories about him running for president, what goes through your mind?" Safer asked.

"Gosh, no!" Supriya Jindal replied, laughing.

"You may live to regret this," Safer said, laughing.

Produced by Deirdre Naphin and Katy Textor

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