Peter S. Canellos | National Perspective

Young sidekick doesn't always mean a winning script

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Peter S. Canellos
Globe Staff / May 27, 2008

WASHINGTON - When Harrison Ford, now 65, decided to take out his bullwhip and reprise his most famous character, the studio followed a time-honored formula for broadening the appeal of movies with aging stars: They added a kid.

So Ford now gets to huff and puff his way through action scenes while 21-year-old Shia LaBeouf gets to learn the ropes from the father that he (and we) never knew he had.

Action stars have faced this reality for generations. In the '60s, a thickening John Wayne was forced to share the marquee with a series of forgettable young heartthrobs whose purpose was less to drive the cattle to market than to drive young people into the theater.

Now, the Republican Party is wondering whether the same formula that worked for the Duke and Indiana Jones might work for John McCain.

Over the holiday weekend, McCain entertained several potential vice presidential possibilities at his Arizona ranch. And while some attention went to Governor Charlie Crist of Florida and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, more eyes were on the boy-governor of Louisiana, 36-year-old Bobby Jindal.

At 71, McCain is on the far end of acceptable ages for national candidates; Jindal would be far on the other end. But while no ticket has spanned the generations quite as widely as would a McCain-Jindal combo - with an age difference of 35 years - the partnering of warhorses with young bucks is not any newer in the GOP than at the multiplex.

Dwight Eisenhower was a father figure to a generation when he ran for president in 1952, shortly before his 62d birthday. For a running mate Ike chose the young senator from California, Richard Nixon, who, at 39, provided a generational counterweight and also a salve to conservatives.

George H.W. Bush was 64 when he finally secured the GOP nomination in 1988; he chose 41-year-old Dan Quayle for his running mate as a bridge to the future and, once again, a salve to conservatives.

The results of these experiments were mixed. In both cases, the vice presidential nominee got enmeshed in a distracting scandal, Nixon over a slush fund provided for his personal use by political supporters, Quayle over his efforts to avoid service in the Vietnam War. But both tickets cleaned up in November.

Like Nixon and Quayle, Jindal would provide not just an injection of youth, but also a much-needed connection to conservatives. Staunchly to the right on social issues, Jindal is also a favorite of the party's economic branch, having risen to prominence as a budget-trimming state Cabinet secretary in the 1990s.

Jindal lost his first run for governor in 2003, but quickly won a seat in the US House in 2004; then, after three years in Washington, he was elected governor last year.

Jindal also catches the eyes of Republicans in a way that Nixon and Quayle did not. The son of Indian immigrants, Jindal provides a contrasting immigrant-success story to that of Barack Obama, the most likely Democratic nominee.

While Obama's personal journey inspires many people as a validation of the American Dream, his struggle for identity was admittedly complicated. He rejected the assimilation of his Hawaiian high school years, when he was known as Barry Obama, and made a home in the black community of Chicago, long a battleground in America's racial struggle.

Obama has spoken of the lingering pain and misunderstanding on both sides of the black-white divide and vowed to provide a bridge to a more hopeful future.

Jindal's embrace of America has been less freighted. As a 4-year-old he stopped using his given name, Piyush, and took that of his favorite TV character, Bobby Brady. He is in many ways the modern equivalent of the European immigrants of the early 20th century, who often anglicized their names and became passionate believers in America as a land of opportunity.

Jindal presents this vision with fewer reservations than Obama, and could make Obama seem less patriotic in comparison.

Then again, nominating Jindal might deprive Republicans of their second-favorite argument against Obama: experience. It would be harder to raise doubts about a 46-year-old man with four years as senator while promoting a 36-year-old man with one year as governor who, for that matter, named himself after a member of "The Brady Bunch."

Republicans might remember that their best outcome of all came when their presidential nominee opted not for a massive generational shift, but only a somewhat younger candidate who was seasoned and presidential - when Ronald Reagan, 69, chose the 56-year-old Bush in 1980.

Peter S. Canellos is the Globe's Washington bureau chief. National Perspective is his weekly analysis of events in the capital and beyond.

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