Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The New York Times serves Haley its Sunday-best

The New York Times published a fluffy profile on Governor Nikki Haley in Sunday's edition, not a real, true profile but a fluffy one -- one that incorporated as much air as a souffle, as much sugar as meringue, as much pomp as Sunday dinner-on-the-grounds. It had the substance and heft of the local Panda Garden's chicken chow mein, meaning that a half-hour after reading it, I was hungry again. So I clicked a few links and discovered why this Valentine to Haley from the Times was so unsatisfying: It was written by the Times's former food writer, who "covered" food for the San Francisco Chronicle and even the Anchorage Daily News before becoming the Times's Atlanta bureau chief. So Haley was to be Sunday's dish.

The writer is Kim Severson. She lures us to the table with this aperitif: "Nikki Haley, at 39 the nation’s youngest governor, loves her iPod."

Mm. Kicky, fresh, potentially exciting.

Then a trio of amuses-bouches, or hors d'oeuvres, served rapid-fire:

When she signed a long-fought bill to bring more transparency to legislative voting, the Black Eyed Peas blasted through the Capitol rotunda here.

Joan Jett, a personal hero because of her fight to prove that women can rock, provided inspiration when it seemed impossible that a relatively inexperienced, deeply conservative woman with Indian immigrant roots could win a bid to govern the state where the Civil War began.

But Ms. Haley’s most enduring theme song, as it was when she campaigned on Tea Party politics and a nod from Sarah Palin, might be Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.”

Heady, with heavy hints of strong and eclectic flavors to come.

Certainly I was intrigued. This promised to be a profile in generational change as exemplified by the expectation-busting young governor of South Carolina. She's a game-changer, rooted in Joan Jett's rebellion and grrl-power, hip to the Black Eyed Peas, but choosing an appropriately Southern emblem -- perennial music-industry irritant Tom Petty -- to represent her defiant stripe in the old Confederacy's incubator.

Then, the entree before the plat principal:

She has built a governorship on aggressive budget cutting, a relentless pursuit of job growth and a cheerleader’s enthusiasm for a state that often finishes toward the back of the pack in education, economics and health.

“We are now what every state is going to want to look like,” Ms. Haley said in an interview in her office almost six months into her administration.

This promised to be no Cheez Whiz on a Ritz, but the main course was definitely a melange of questionable choices. Severson seemed breathless at Haley's admonition to "Get excited," which means nothing to the millions of South Carolinians who wonder when we'll have a leader again. On its heels, Severson offers this startling declation -- “Her understanding of the role of state government appears rather limited" -- from author Jack Bass, who knows a thing or two about South Carolina's history and leaders. Almost as an apology for the offense, she follows with another Bass quote: “I just find her interesting.”

But she tries so hard to make this course work; Haley has such a high-profile for such low experience. Severson plugs Haley's upcoming "memoir" and fawns, "Telegenic and direct, she is popular with producers of national news shows. Her digital-savvy young staff issues YouTube-ready videos that show everything from her cabinet meetings to the crowning of collard greens as the official state vegetable." Presidential wannabes "parade" through Haley's office; Haley, playing dilettante, has no interest in serving as sous chef to any of them.

One senses the waiter has rushed out the plateau de fromages a bit too early. A sampler of the cheese:

But the governor’s focus on the policies of President Obama has offered the most substantive contribution to her national profile. She regularly criticizes his policies on health care and spending, and has called him a bully for his administration’s stance on a $750 million jet assembly plant that Boeing opened in North Charleston in June.
Ms. Haley, who has support from more than a dozen governors on the issue, testified recently before a Congressional oversight committee on the role of the board. Her point? The federal government must stop getting in the way of economic growth in the states.

Later, in a conference call with reporters, she said that she wanted the president to intervene in the lawsuit and that her job was “to be loud and annoying and in his face.”
Back home, legislators say her administration is a refreshing change from the tumultuous days of her predecessor...
Some of the tension between the governor and members of the Legislature comes from a style of governing that can bypass the decorum that underscores much of political life in this stalwart of the Old South.

Fiddle-de-dee. Haley is the modern Scarlett, navigating a system full of old Colonels to bring Tara back to prominence.

And what of Darla Moore, the Carolina belle unseated by Haley from the university board? Severson poses the various rumors: Moore was tardy in responding to Haley, Haley had plotted her ouster from the start, or "was the whole thing merely a power struggle between two powerful people?"

Here, the main course is definitely finished. Haley takes Severson, former food writer for the New York Times, into her confidence and divulges the honest-to-goodness truth.

“You don’t put benefactors on a governing board, because all of the sudden the 19-member board becomes a board of one because everybody is afraid to upset the woman who gave $70 million,” the governor said. “It may not have been good politics, but it was good policy.”

Severson apparently doesn't ask if Moore had served competently and well while doling out the millions. Dessert is due.

She writes that Haley's holding her own in popularity, which is a topic of particular note to Severson. In a promotional video for her own new cooking book, Severson advises of a life lesson she learned from a mentor, "Stop letting yourself be tortured by the popular girls." It is reminiscent of a story Haley tells of being shunted from a local beauty pageant because she was neither black nor white, and pageant organizers couldn't decide what to do about it. Did Severson see a kindred soul in Haley? Like her or not, Severson reports, Haley's "doing exactly what she set out to do: shake up the way government does business."

Of course, after dessert comes a little coffee:

“Nikki’s in a hurry — I think that’s what it boils down to,” said Henry McMaster, a former state attorney general who ran against Ms. Haley in the primary and became one of her biggest supporters. “She makes it clear what she wants done, and it causes a little friction.”

Bitter, this coffee, even with the sugar and creme fraiche.

And finally, the digestif:

One thing is certain. In the middle of it all, Ms. Haley seems to be having fun.

Her family ... watches “American Idol” and plays games during regular family fun nights.

The children, who attend public school, enjoy playing tricks on the mansion staff.
“We just have such a good time,” Ms. Haley said.

Still, governing the way she wants to seems to give her the biggest thrill.

“You can feel the energy. You can feel the buzz,” she said. “It’s because people are incredibly excited about their government and elected officials are incredibly scared and it’s a beautiful thing.”

Indeed, it's a beautiful thing: A Valentine in seven courses, wrapped in the gossamer pages of the New York Times, perhaps delivered with Swiss chocolates.

Satisfying? Not really. Surely Severson would have been familiar with the recent Nation summary of our governor, in which a bonafide pillar of the state's power structure -- John Rainey -- declared Haley "the most corrupt person to occupy the Governor's Mansion since Reconstruction." But no questions about corruption, in deed or in philosophy? And although Severson mentioned, in passing, Haley's dust-up over Amazon, she didn't take note of the state's newly-risen unemployment rate -- now 10 percent again -- nor ask questions about the lost jobs, including 2,400 educator positions -- that bumped us back into embarrassing double digits. Answers to these questions might have rated a Times review, I think.

As Severson highlighted Haley, Severson deserves highlights too. She sat in April for a soul-baring interview -- recommended reading -- with her former employer, the Anchorage Daily News. She has something of a website where you can read more about her and buy her new book.

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