What has become of modern politics? Petty spying has replaced issues-based campaigns, videos of half-truths are standing in for public debates, and candidates have become brands, rather than human beings — especially in Louisiana's U.S. Senate race.
In today's politics, anybody can drop a dime and become an influencer, even if he or she is peddling fiction from the shadows. We rarely see anything personal about the candidates — unless it's embarrassing. If a staffer were to interrupt President Barack Obama or Gov. Bobby Jindal during a press conference to replace their batteries, many of us might not even blink.
So we asked the challenger, Rep. Charlie Melancon, and incumbent Sen. David Vitter to get real, just for a few moments, to talk about their childhoods, college days, families, interests and disinterests. The end results (or lack thereof) say more about the candidates than all their ads put together.
The Melancon campaign agreed to let the candidate field a few questions over beer at the Abita Brew Pub in Abita Springs. Melancon, a Cajun Democrat, declined the free beer and ordered iced tea. His D.C. press secretary, Robin Winchell, and Peachy, his wife of 38 years, each had Abita's Fall Fest, an Oktoberfest variety. The rest of the staff sat at the bar.
With a guarantee that nothing would be off limits, Melancon's interview veered into strange corners:
• Cockfighting: "It was a Louisiana trade that died hard. It was important not only in the rural areas, but all over the state. It was a bit macabre, though. It was time for it to end."
• Baggy pants laws: Melancon says the government shouldn't be in the business of telling anyone what to wear, but added he's personally against baggy pants. He recounted a story from an evening in New Orleans where a young man was shot in a dispute because his pants kept sliding off. "He couldn't run," Melancon says, shaking his head.
• Personal health: "I'm hypoglycemic," he says, referring to the medical condition of low levels of blood glucose.
• Interracial marriage and gay and lesbian relationships: "People marry who they love. That's their business."
• UFOs: "I guess a full moon comes out every so often. But if they exist, I haven't seen one."
• Political folklore: "I heard [former governor] Edwin Edwards had a bit of tennis elbow from shaking so many hands."
• Non-biodegradable cheeseburgers: "For some reason, ever since this oil spill, I feel like I've eaten more fast food than I ever cared to."
• Marijuana: "I believe in medicinal marijuana. ... But smoking marijuana can lead to harder substitutes. Alcohol, the same thing. At the same time, we're just filling all of our jails with people who smoke marijuana," Melancon says before adding "it's only a matter of time" before the issues of medicinal applications and decriminalization need to be examined more closely.
Melancon, who turned 63 in October, isn't much of a reader, just perusing hunting and fishing periodicals mostly. He couldn't name the last book he read or his favorite novel. He says he recently tried to get through the new Edwards biography by Baton Rouge writer Leo Honeycutt, but quit after a few chapters. "I get about 15 minutes into a book and my eyes shut," he confesses.
He does have a fondness for comedic films. "I thought The Hangover was really funny," he says, referring to last year's Zach Galifianakis romp. Then there's Animal House, the 1978 fraternity spoof that lifted John Belushi to new levels of stardom as frat slob Bluto Blutarsky. Melancon says with a chuckle that there's a reason he relates to the movie — as the ending credits roll, the future of each character is revealed. Bluto becomes U.S. Sen. Blutarsky. "Art mimics life," Melancon says.
Did Melancon party that much during his college days (he was Kappa Sigma) at what is now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette? "I was the original party animal," he says, laughing. He also admits to being called into the assistant dean's office once for a minor prank.
Musically, Melancon can name all the local radio stations in Acadiana that play Cajun music and almost immediately called out Dr. John, who is related to Peachy and is scheduled to play a fundraiser for Melancon in the Crescent City home of Democratic consultant James Carville. "You should see his texts," Peachy says of Dr. John, who once described Hurricane Katrina as the "Sippiana Hericane" in a 2005 album. "They're indecipherable."
Peachy has become a staple on the campaign trail. She has an opinion on everything and isn't shy about sharing it with folks — or the congressman. It's also not beyond her to interrupt one of her husband's speeches. (At the Abita Brew Pub, she joined in the discussion, but showed more interest in her beer and the LSU-Auburn football game.) Aside from his congressional salary, her income from a storage rental facility is the family's only outside income, though Peachy is technically retired.
The Melancons clearly enjoy each other's company. They have two grown children — Charles Joseph, known as Seph, and Claire — and a grandchild, Jack.
The congressman chuckled slightly when remembering how he originally made the moves on his future wife. "I met her in an elevator in 1971," he says, in New Orleans while both were working on Edwards' historic run for governor. "We would go on walks and then just started doing more and more until we weren't getting home until after midnight. I think we were only engaged for two or three months."
Melancon, the grandson and great-grandson of sugar cane farmers, was born and has spent most of his life in Napoleonville. He grew up on a dead-end street called Hog-Pen Alley, not far from where he lives now, but Melancon did not want for anything as a child. His father, Joseph U. Melancon, was mayor of Napoleonville and his mother, Niceé "Brownie" Talbot Melancon, was a civic activist. The congressman admits his father's public service took away some quality father time, but it did not make him rebellious.
"I knew if I did anything, I mean anything, they would find out," Melancon recalls. "But it was an experience that served me well."
As expected, landing an interview with David Vitter — even a nonpolitical one — proved to be difficult; the senator agrees to few interviews. A phone message left for his flack seeking a personal encounter turned into requesting others associated with the campaign to carry a message seeking an interview and then, finally, into a flurry of emails asking for responses in any fashion. The end product was an email response directly from Vitter.
Vitter, a 49-year-old Metairie Republican, was asked all of the same questions as Melancon, but the senator cherry-picked the topics he wanted to discuss — which did not include UFOs, medical marijuana or interracial and gay and lesbian marriages.
• Interests: "My best friend, Claude, and I have a weekly tennis match, which we get to every other month."
• Architecture: "I did the initial design of our house that we built."
• Favorite book that was turned into a movie: To Kill a Mockingbird (also all-time favorite movie, with Casablanca running a close second).
• Favorite musicals: The Sound of Music and The One and Only Genuine Original Family Band.
• Favorite books: The Last Gentleman, A Confederacy of Dunces and And Then There Were None.
• Television: The Dick Van Dyke Show, Everybody Loves Raymond, Monk ("The big bonus is my kids watch it with me") and Fawlty Towers ("A great British situation comedy starring Monty Python's John Cleese").
• Food: "I love ice cream."
Vitter was born and reared in New Orleans, arguably the most liberal region of Louisiana, but later settled in Metairie, one of the most conservative parts of the state. State House District 81, which Vitter represented in the early 1990s, has one of the highest concentrations of white voters in Louisiana. It sent former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke to the Legislature, and its current representative, John LaBruzzo, has grabbed headlines for wanting to drug test welfare recipients.
Vitter's roots actually run much deeper in New Orleans than in Jefferson Parish. He graduated from De La Salle High School in 1979. He played first clarinet in the high school band to Wynton Marsalis' second trumpet. "Our musical paths diverge slightly after that," Vitter says, "meaning he went to Juilliard and Lincoln Center and I did not."
Vitter says he also digs Harry Connick Jr., but that might just be an opportunity to mention that his wife, Wendy, was chief of trials for former New Orleans District Attorney Harry Connick Sr. Vitter also is a huge New Orleans Saints fan and once sent a black-and-gold themed family Christmas card. Then there's this: "My best job growing up was working for Blaine Kern Studios, the Mardi Gras float builders. However, I was only allowed to paint floats the white primer coat."
He was the youngest of six children, as was Wendy, and together they have their own brood — three daughters, Sophie, Lise, and Airey; and a son, Jack. "All of my waking time falls into two categories," he says, "working on behalf of my fellow citizens of Louisiana, which I love, and doing things with my family, which I love even more. Wendy and I both tutor our 13-year-old [twin] Latin scholars, attend their volleyball games, follow 8-year-old Jack's soccer career and try to get penciled into 17-year-old Sophie's busy social calendar whenever possible."
His parents, Audrey Malvina St. Raymond and Albert Leopold Vitter, were both New Orleans natives as well. "They were dedicated Christians and great personal examples," Vitter says. "My dad was a petroleum engineer and mom a homemaker with a social work degree. Neither of them were very politically minded, but both were super supportive of me."
Politics weren't even on the radar back then for Vitter. "Growing up, at various times, I wanted to be an astronaut, a singer/actor and a diplomat," he recalls.
Today, he's a U.S. senator, which makes the future version of Bluto in Animal House a better fit for Vitter than Melancon.
Few voters see him in that light, however, thanks to the tightly controlled images and messages put forth by both campaigns. Politics will probably always be that way — candidates will hold back enough to seem wholesome and normal ... unless we all begin asking more pointed questions about medicinal marijuana, UFOs and ice cream.
Jeremy Alford is a freelance journalist based in Baton Rouge. You can reach him through his Web site at www.jeremyalford.com.