JACKSON More than any of his predecessors, says the new York Times, ex-Mississippian Haley Barbour as chairman of the Republican National Committee, has involved himself in shaping party policy while also directing its politics.

Consequently, the Times said in a lengthy Sunday piece on the 48-year-old Yazoo City native, how the GOP does in this year’s elections will be a referendum on Barbour’s molding of GOP policy.

Although Barbour insisted to the Times that he only disseminates the Republican message, GOP Congressional figures say he is deeply involved in shaping party policy. Traditionally the national chairman has been expected to run only the everyday affairs of party operations.

Barbour’s penchant for integrating policy into his political management has evidently collided with some top Congressional Republicans.

They had rejected Barbour’s advice after winning a majority in Congress in the November, 1994 elections, to go easy on Medicare changes. He was proven right when Democrats proceeded to make political hay with the proposed GOP Medicare changes.

Again, after he had made it a practice to sit in on budget strategy sessions of top Republican lawmakers, Barbour was sent a message from Sen. Bob Dole that he wasn’t welcome in the sessions. The Times story says the GOP chairman was “hurt and confused” by the rebuff.

Barbour is generally credited with the idea of “nationalizing” the 1994 elections with the Contract With America as the centerpiece for local Congressional races. His gamble apparently paid off well for the Republicans by showing the ideological differences between the two parties.

If anyone ever worked his way up through the ranks of a political party to reach the top party administrative job, Barbour is certainly that person. He labored for years down here in Mississippi’s Republican vineyards before ever taking a job in the Reagan White House in 1985.

He only ventured forth in the role of a party candidate for office in 1982 when no one else was willing to carry the GOP standard against the revered Sen. John Stennis.

His campaign was certainly nothing to be proud of. Barbour ridiculously attempted to paint Stennis, the patron saint of national defense, as a dove. There was also a very tasteless episode rigged up by one of Barbour’s campaign aides to embarrass Stennis over the senator’s 82nd birthday.

Barbour grew up as part of Yazoo City’s white aristocracy, not far from Mike Espy, the former congressman and secretary of agriculture. But in the town’s segregated society, they virtually lived in different worlds. Espy makes the comment mow that while Barbour’s “drawl might be slow, the mind is quick.”

I remember Haley as the chubby little catcher on the same American Legion baseball team with one of my sons. Though not swift of foot, Barbour was an excellent hitter.

He likes to talk about having a Choctaw Indian ancestry from his mother. He boasts that his great-great-great-great grandfather was Louis LeFleur, the early 19th century French explorer who also became chief of the Choctaw Indian nation and founded LeFleur’s Bluff, now the city of Jackson.

Barbour’s major task at this summer’s Republican National convention in San Diego, will be to prevent such issues as abortion and gay and lesbian rights from gravely dividing the party.

While he opposes abortion, he mentioned in his interview with the Times that the party “needs its head examined if we let abortion be the threshold issue of Republicanism.”

Bill Minor is a syndicated columnist who has covered Mississippi politics since 1947.

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