OPINION: Barbour's star rises, but so does widespread scrutiny

JACKSON – Haley Barbour has played on the nation’s political scene like no other governor in the history of Mississippi.
Before Barbour defeating incumbent Ronnie Musgrove to become governor in 2003, it was not unusual to see the Republican on the Sunday morning news shows.
Barbour, political director in the Ronald Reagan White House in the 1980s and one of the architects of the Republican’s takeover of Congress in 1994, is well known and well respected on the national level for his political insights.
When Barbour, former chair of the Republican National Committee, won the Mississippi Governor’s Mansion, he gained even more credibility.
The election showed he not only had the smarts and political moxie to steer campaigns, but the right stuff to be the person out front – the person on the ballot.
He could not only help other people get elected, he could pull in votes for himself.
The Yazoo City native’s performance during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and in its chaotic aftermath served to give Barbour even more national credentials. It still is not unusual to switch on a national news show and see Barbour being interviewed.
While such national exposure is routine for Barbour, it was a rarity for previous Mississippi governors.
That is why when national pundits talk about possible Republican presidential contenders for 2012, he is on the list. He is not on the first page of all lists right now, but he is at least high on everyone’s second page.
That Barbour – a governor from a small state that leads the nation in most every negative category, whether it is health care, education or per capita income – is on a list is amazing in itself.
Some people say it’s not that big of deal because Bill Clinton proved that a governor from a state near the bottom on most quality-of-life issues can be elected president. But Clinton was a once-in-lifetime politician in terms of of charisma, communication skills and policy knowledge.
Let’s be honest here – Barbour can match Clinton in terms of policy knowledge and even communication skills, but falls a little short in terms of charisma. But then just about everyone else falls far short of Clinton in charisma.
At any rate, many on the national scene believe Barbour can be a factor in the 2012 presidential race. With that credibility, though, comes a certain degree of scrutiny.
Barbour took some heat last week for comments he made about the health care bill being considered in Congress.
According to POLITICO, the governor said, “I have been looking for Jim Jones and where is the Kool Aid.”
Barbour, of course, was referring to what has been described as the largest mass suicide in history, where more than 900 people died from drinking Kool Aid laced with poison in Jonestown, Guyana, in the 1970s.
California Rep. Jackie Speier, a Democrat, was wounded during the event as part of a congressional delegation that traveled to Guyana to try to help people leave the Jonestown compound.
In reply to Barbour, he said, “The governor of Mississippi doesn’t have to look at a horrific tragedy in a third world country for comparisons to our country’s health care problem. Nearly one third of Mississippi residents between 19 and 29 are uninsured despite his state receiving the most federal health care dollars per capita of any state.”
Speier’s boss, Rep. Leo Ryan, was shot to death during the trip to Jonestown.
And, during the same week, Slate magazine did a story highlighting four cases where Barbour pardoned or commuted the sentences of men who were convicted of murdering their spouse or girlfriend.
Slate brought up the pardons specifically because Barbour is viewed as a possible presidential candidate and in light of what happened to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who commuted the sentence of a man who recently shot and killed four police officers in Washington state.
Indeed, as Barbour’s presence on the national stage increases – as he continues to appear on national news shows – look for scrutiny of him and also of his home state to intensify.
Contact Journal Capitol Bureau chief Bobby Harrison at bobby.harrison@djournal.com or (601) 353-3119.

Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal