Kevin Reilly was mad. He was impatient, frustrated, seething with rage. When he walked out of the Louisiana legislature’s summer session, the 57-year-old, four-term representative felt like Mount St. Helens on the eve of the explosion.
For weeks the Harvard graduate, president of a billboard company and part-time lawmaker, had lobbied to persuade his legislative colleagues to increase the state’s funding for its colleges and universities. He had begged and cajoled and used all of his ample oratorical powers, and he had gotten nowhere. And then, as he stomped out of the session, a reporter asked him what the legislature had done for higher education in 1985. That did it. That seemingly innocent query set Reilly off, and he promptly committed the ultimate political sin: He spoke his mind and he spoke it bluntly. His adopted state of Louisiana was nothing but “a banana republic,” Reilly declared. “What we ought to do is declare bankruptcy, secede from the union and file for foreign aid.” There was more. “We lead in all the good stuff—illiteracy, unwed mothers—and we’re last in education.” Then, with heavy sarcasm, Reilly added: “Louisiana, you can be proud of yourself.”
If that weren’t blasphemy enough, Reilly also took a few swipes at the laid-back Louisianans (“a lazy, stupid population”), at their idea of a meaningful life (“a pickup truck and two shotguns”), at their elected officials (“either hypocrites or liars or both”) and even at the NFL’s hapless New Orleans Saints (“40 obese, weightlifting slobs”). When he finished his rant, Reilly went home to his wife, Dee Dee, and said, “I just ended my political career.”
It certainly seemed so. The next morning a prankster placed a banana on each legislator’s desk as a reminder of the collective slight. When Reilly appeared his colleagues greeted him with a chorus of boos and hisses.
At that point Reilly rose to defend himself. He admitted that he had suffered an attack of “foot-in-mouth disease,” but he did not apologize. Instead, he told the legislators that they were foolish and shortsighted to skimp on education. Louisiana’s oil industry would not carry the state forever, he said, and soon it would need a talented, educated population if it was not to become the “Appalachia of the South.” Finished, he left the podium.
Instead of more boos and hisses coming from the floor an amazing thing happened. The representatives—those same folk he’d categorized as hypocrites or liars—rose to their feet and gave Reilly an ovation.
The public—those “lazy, stupid” Louisianans—was even more supportive. Hundreds wrote congratulatory letters to Reilly. One citizen, a self-proclaimed pickup-driving, shotgun-owning Saints fan, wrote, “All I can say is Amen.”
What does this bizarre incident mean? Is the American electorate so starved for honesty that Don Ricklestype invective is the new “in” language of politics? Reilly, who loves Louisiana and doesn’t want to leave it (he was born in Boston but has lived in Baton Rouge for the last 31 years), knows only this: Suddenly he is popular. “Up to now, nobody ever wore themselves out patting me on the back,” he marvels.
At this point, he says, he is thinking about capitalizing on his serendipitous outburst by running for the state senate.