I often read memoirs for the unintentional comedy. Most memoirists make themselves the winner of every argument and the hero of every conflict. I’m pleased to report that Backrooms and Bayous: My Life in Louisiana Politics by Robert Mann avoids these traps. Mann fesses up to his mistakes and even apologizes to those he’s wronged. An impressive and rare accomplishment.
Before I was the 13th Ward Rambler, I was Bayou Brief’s listicle guy. My favorite was the movie list: Set In Louisiana. I have a cinematic image in mind for this book review, but I hesitate to use it because Bob Mann has only one thing in common with the title characters. He’s either the Zelig or Forrest Gump of Louisiana politics because whenever an important event took place Bob Mann was either there or nearby. I was reluctant to draw this analogy since everyone is mad at Woody Allen and Forrest Gump was an amiable dunce whereas Bob Mann is highly intelligent. Don’t trust me, read Backrooms and Bayous.
Mann opens his book with the most dramatic event of his career: Hurricane Katrina and the Federal Flood. Mann was then Governor Kathleen Blanco’s Communications Director and he provides an inside look into Blanco’s operation during the crisis. They did a better job than they were credited at the time. Mann blames himself for the erratic comms strategy but to be fair, everything was chaotic back then. Plus, Team Blanco had to deal with incoming fire from the Bush White House in the person of the dread Karl Rove.
I consider Bob Mann to be an online friend, which is why it’s a relief that his book is so damn good. He knew all the major players in Louisiana politics for three decades. He was lucky in his bosses: Russell Long, John Breaux, Bennett Johnston, and Kathleen Blanco all treated their staff with courtesy, respect, and kindness. John Breaux, in particular, comes off as a dream boss. The featured image is of Long, Breaux, and Mann at a book signing.
An alternate title for this marvelous book could be The Education of Robert Mann. Mann began his political and personal journey in a different place from where he is in 2021.
Bob Mann was born in Beaumont, Texas, which is almost like being a Gret Stet native. His parents were hard shell religious conservatives, so Bob took on their politics as a young man. He was even a youthful admirer of George Wallace, which will surprise everyone who follows him on Twitter where he’s a leading liberal. People grow and change. So did Bob Mann.
In addition to his interest in politics, Mann took a shine to broadcasting, working in radio while a student. After college, Mann became a newspaper reporter with the Monroe News-Star. His stories of working the small towns and back roads of the Gret Stet of Louisiana are a window into a lost world. A highlight of this section of the book is meeting then Winnfield Mayor Jack Henderson. Befitting the mayor of Huey and Earl Long’s hometown, Henderson was a colorful politician of the gallus-snapping variety.
In 1983 Mann became a reporter at the Shreveport Journal; just in time to cover both candidates in the 1983 Gret Stet governor’s race. It was my first Louisiana governor’s campaign as a resident. I was struck by the contrast between Edwin Edwards and incumbent Dave Treen. Edwards was born to campaign whereas Treen was reticent and tentative on the stump. Interestingly, Mann points out that Edwin Edwards and Dave Treen were different people offstage. Treen was warm and friendly whereas Edwards was aloof and distant in private.
In 1984 Mann changed sides and went to work for Senator Russell Long in what turned out to be Long’s final term in the Senate. Long was an avuncular boss who encouraged Mann to write his biography, Legacy to Power: Senator Russell Long of Louisiana. It was Mann’s first, and perhaps, most interesting of 8 books.
As with most memoirs, Backrooms and Bayous is episodic. I’ll try and hit the highlights.
Bob Mann was involved in two of the most interesting non-campaigns in Louisiana history. Senators Long and Breaux were begged to run for governor in 1987 and 2003 respectively. Long was not eager to run against Edwin Edwards and Breaux’s effort died because of a residency dispute. The details of the purt near campaigns provide a fascinating historical what if.
Mann was working for John Breaux when David Duke first metastasized as a political threat. Breaux loaned Mann to Senator J Bennett Johnston for his 1990 re-election effort. Johnston was a nice man and a good albeit conservative senator but a lackluster campaigner. Duke was a terrible man and an excellent campaigner. Mann’s description of that election night is gripping as the shockingly close results rolled in. It was a reminder that political racism in Louisiana was dormant, not dead.
One of Bob Mann’s greatest regrets was getting carried away with attacks against Buddy Roemer in the 1995 Governor’s race. Mann was the communications director for the Louisiana Democratic Party during that race. His mission was to take out the leading GOP contender, Buddy Roemer. He went too far and essentially compared Roemer to David Duke.
The Roemer incident reflects Mann’s harshest self-criticism: he had a win-at-all-costs mentality during campaigns, which led him to go too far in attacking the opposition. He subsequently apologized to Roemer for his overkill.
Mann’s last major political job was working with an historic yet still modest figure, Kathleen Blanco, the first woman governor of the Gret Stet of Louisiana. Blanco was a decided underdog in the 2003 race, which ended up in a runoff with Bobby Jindal. Jindal had a big lead, but his inexperience and arrogance led to his downfall and Blanco squeaked out a win.
One thing I did not know about the Blanco-Jindal race is that Team Blanco played on the traditional rivalry and enmity between Indians and Pakistanis by mobilizing the Louisiana Pakistani community against Jindal. This is another thing that Mann is not proud of in retrospect, but it was a brilliant strategic move by Team Blanco.
The Blanco governorship was a twofer: Blanco’s husband Raymond was a powerful force in her administration. He had been a football coach and had many of the characteristics of that breed. He was loud, boisterous, and good company. I suspect that Bob Mann has been dining out on his Coach Blanco stories for years before sharing them with his lucky readership.
There were two things I learned about Governor Blanco from Mann’s book. First, she and Coach were night owls, which led to Mann receiving phone calls at odd hours. Second, she ferociously stood her ground in meetings with New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson. My mother taught me not to speak ill of the dead but it’s impossible in Benson’s case. He was a rude and selfish man who nearly moved the team to San Antonio. Blanco found him so difficult to deal with that as she left one meeting, she called Benson an asshole under her breath. Kathleen Blanco was an astute judge of character.
History has already been kinder to Governor Blanco than her contemporaries. Before the one-two punch of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita she was on her way to reelection. The combination of recovery problems and Bush administration smear tactics resulted in her withdrawal from the 2007 race. Another casualty of the storms was Bob Mann’s working relationship with the Blancos. He left the administration in 2006 and became a professor and resident irritant at LSU’s Manship School of Journalism.
Bob Mann is no longer a participant in Louisiana politics, which enabled him to publish this candid and well-written memoir. The only nit I have to pick is Mann’s tendency to quote favorable reviews of his books. But who can blame him? He has a bibliography of which to be proud.
It’s time to grade Professor Mann’s book. I give Backrooms and Bayous: My Life in Louisiana Politics 4 stars and a 13th Ward Rambler grade of A. It’s a breezy and entertaining account of a life well lived.
Bob is selling signed copies at Backrooms and Bayous.com. It’s how I got mine. This is the first and only time I’ll suggest that you follow my example.
While I’m on the subject of excellent books by Louisiana authors, my friend Michael Tisserand has published a remarkable book of photographs taken by his late father, Jerry, My Father When Young. I reviewed it at First Draft and commend it to your attention.
The last word goes to Johnny Cash with a song that fits the Zelig-Gump aspect of Bob Mann’s life in Louisiana politics: