Sunday, May 25, 2014

John Maginnis: a fond farewell

Posted By on Sun, May 25, 2014 at 4:48 PM

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All who follow Louisiana politics lost a great friend today (Sunday, May 25) with the passing of John Maginnis, the veteran political columnist and publisher of LaPolitics Weekly, at the age of 66.

In recent months John battled a blood disorder, said friend and business partner Jeremy Alford, also a Baton Rouge-based political columnist and editor of LaPolitics. Several years ago, John suffered a mild heart attack. Despite those medical conditions, Alford said, John’s passing caught everyone by surprise. “You always think there’s more time,” he said.

To me, John was the Tim Russert of Louisiana — his comments were always the most authoritative and the most respected among journalists and politicians alike. For four decades, he had no equal when it came to dissecting, analyzing and explaining Louisiana politics. His columns and speeches combined equal measures of humor, insight and accuracy. If John printed it or said it, you could count it as gospel, yet he never boasted or put on airs.

He consistently approached his subject and those who played the game with respect, humility and objectivity. Alford noted in a LaPolitics statement announcing John’s death that whenever someone complimented John’s work, he would respond, “I owe it all to the material.” To that, Alford said, “Those who knew him best, however, knew better.”

John authored three books on Louisiana politics — The Last Hayride, which chronicled Edwin Edwards’ victory over incumbent Gov. Dave Treen in 1983, Cross to Bear, about EWE’s win over former KKK leader David Duke in 1991, and The Politics of Reform, a history of the first 50 years of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana (PAR) in 2000. His syndicated political columns appeared in 21 newspapers across Louisiana.

The LaPolitics statement noted that John’s long career in journalism began as a paperboy for his hometown Baton Rouge’s afternoon newspaper, The State-Times. He graduated from LSU with a degree in journalism and in 2000 was inducted into the LSU Manship School of Mass Communications’ hall of fame. He joined the Navy after his college years, and upon his return to Baton Rouge in 1972 he and friends co-founded Gris-Gris, a weekly that featured his hallmark political columns. Years later he founded The Louisiana Political Review, which evolved into the digital LaPolitics.

Throughout his long and distinguished career, John had a gift for writing about the intricacies of Louisiana politics in terms that professionals and amateurs alike could understand and appreciate. Above all, he never lost sight of the fact that politics is a human exercise. His columns never failed to point out the human side of the story — often with a humorous twist that complemented the facts without overshadowing them. National media often focus on the “colorful” side of Louisiana politics to the point of losing their focus or distorting the facts. John wove political personalities into his columns as a way of adding context, without ever sacrificing accuracy.

I first met John during the 1979 governor’s race. I was working then for The Times-Picayune and he for Gris-Gris. We met one day while shadowing then-Public Service Commissioner Louis Lambert in his runoff campaign against then-Congressman Dave Treen. From the start, John impressed me with his insight and humor. On the evening of the day we met, a mutual friend at the Baton Rouge Morning Advocate hosted what turned into an all-night party, and I wound up crashing on the friend’s living room sofa. The next morning, John came by to pick me up. He remembered that my car was still in Gonzales, and he offered to give me a lift. I knew then that I had just made a friend for life.

Over the years, I had the great fortune to spend many occasions with John at the state Capitol, on the campaign trail, or on panels discussing our state’s unique political culture. Even the shortest encounter with him was a learning experience. To friend and stranger alike, John generously shared his vast knowledge and matchless take on Louisiana politics.

For the past decade or so, former Times-Picayune City Hall reporter Frank Donze and I appeared with John once a year before the class of the Loyola Institute of Politics for an evening of no-holds-barred, off-the-record observations about local and state politics. I always left those discussions feeling as though I learned as much from John as did the students.

“John made the discussion of the blood sport that is political campaigning and the riddle that is the legislative process easy to chew and even easier to digest,” said Donze. “Whether he was writing it in a book, on his website, or talking about it before a group of wannabe politicians, John was always engaging, thoughtful, and most importantly entertaining. He was like a good teacher: he made learning fun. Louisiana has lost one of its best chroniclers of the here and now, of the things that we as citizens all should be more tuned into but often are not. His legacy as a journalist is what everyone in our profession strives for: he was accurate; he was fair; and he was informative. He will be sorely missed.”

Veteran Democratic strategist and frequent network TV commentator James Carville knew Maginnis from their days at LSU. Carville said of Maginnis: “Louisiana just lost its most experienced and best political commentator. For 30-plus years, he was the undisputed gold standard in Louisiana political reporting. Historians will find his books and writings to be invaluable, and people like me who have done this for a long time have lost a really good friend.

“I don’t know of another state that has or has had a political journalist who had as long and as influential a career as John. I can’t think of anybody anywhere else like him.”

Veteran political observer and blogger C.B. Forgotston likewise knew Maginnis from LSU. “John’s passing was a real shock,” Forgotston said in an email. “John was a younger (DKE) fraternity brother at LSU, so I knew him for almost 50 years. John was the consummate professional even when we disagreed on issues, which we did often.”

Forgotston said John’s first book, The Last Hayride, showcased his knack for getting his subjects to trust him. “That book provided an extremely rare view of the inside of an Edwin Edwards gubernatorial campaign,” Forgotston said. “John managed to make EWE so comfortable that apparently EWE and his aides forgot he was in the room as they plotted. It was that type of insight into Louisiana politics that will be greatly missed by those of us who knew John and his writings.”

PAR president Robert T. Scott, a former Capitol correspondent for The Times-Picayune, remembers John as “the perfect professional in his field. … He was a living forum for the fair and informed discussion of the colorful events, players and shenanigans that make up Louisiana politics. In his clear and authoritative trademark style, John uplifted us with gifted writing and a sophisticated understanding of Louisiana’s complicated and confounding political and legislative scene. He understood the vital importance of both personality and policy in Louisiana politics, and he did it all with a warm and infectious sense of humor.”

Louisiana politicians likewise expressed sadness at John’s passing and admiration for his work.

Edwin Edwards, who was probably John’s favorite subject, told The Times-Picayune that John “treated all politicians the same. He didn’t play favorites with elected officials. We were antagonists from the beginning. In spite of all the things he said about me, he said them well.”

State Senate President John Alario likewise told the TP that John’s passing was “a terrible loss for the state. … He had lots of sources because people trusted him.”

Gov. Bobby Jindal said in a statement that John “had an incredible gift that enabled him to uncover stories and narratives that no one was talking about, but would ultimately drive the debate.” Jindal added that John “will be greatly missed but never forgotten.”

U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu said in a statement, “Louisiana has lost its premier political commentator today. John was largely responsible for making politics Louisiana’s second-favorite pastime, just after football.”

Congressman Steve Scalise said in a statement, “While he often seemed to have an abundance of material to work with, John Maginnis had a unique talent for telling a story in a way that made it come to life for his readers.”

Alford, who began working at LaPolitics with John several years ago, noted that John had a wit to match those of some of the politicians he covered. Alford recalled the time a national media reporter asked him about U.S. Sen. David Vitter’s involvement in a prostitution scandal. John wryly (and accurately) told the reporter, “In Louisiana, it takes more than one sex scandal to sink a politician.”

“Another thing that set him apart is he never hesitated to test what he thought he knew or had heard from a reliable source,” said Donze. “He would often call me to run local stuff by me. What he had was usually right on the money, but he wanted that next level of assurance before he went with it. He was ‘Old School’ all the way. He never succumbed to the get-it-first-I-can-always-get-it-right-later philosophy that has infected Internet reporting.”

There are countless examples of John’s special gift of political storytelling. Here’s a LINK to a recent column that appeared in The Times-Picayune about “fashion statements” made in connection with hotly contested legislative issues. It’s a classic example of how John could find a unique angle to a story, write incisively and humorously about it, explain how and why decisions were made — and not take sides. That’s what he did for the better part of four decades. We were lucky to have John that long, but he still left us too soon.

So long, old friend. Thanks for the great ride and the many great tales.

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