Quin Hillyer: The day an election stood still

Fifteen years ago today, national cable networks were running near-hourly updates on a story relating to a Louisiana election. The Bayou State, with its bizarrely entertaining political tradition, was not unaccustomed to such attention. The difference this time was that the politics were almost immaterial. A life itself, not just an election, hung in the balance.

Former Gov. Dave Treen, holding a narrow lead in a special for Congress, had suspended campaign activity with less than a week remaining. His 20-year-old grandson, Jason Neville, had disappeared while hiking in the Oregon wilderness, presumably without proper survival gear, and Treen had flown west to catalyze a massive search.

Back in Louisiana, opponent David Vitter, a state representative, made the right noises about praying for Jason’s safety — but, behind the scenes, continued his own campaign, which included remarkably harsh attacks against the inoffensive Treen. Vitter was helped, with a wink and a nod, by Klansman David Duke, who in a clever bit of spite had “endorsed” his archenemy Treen while the Vitter campaign (allegedly; the evidence was compelling) blanketed black neighborhoods with flyers associating Treen with Duke.

Considering Treen’s long history of working feverishly to hamper Duke’s career, this was a particularly low blow. Indeed, as Treen contemplated whether to enter the race, I had driven to Treen’s home from my then-perch at the Mobile Register for 90 minutes of “just talking politics” about his pending decision. Conversation details were off the record, but it breaks no trust to say that of two main considerations impelling Treen, the one he emphasized to me almost obsessively was his concern that Duke would make a runoff and embarrass the state if he, Treen, with his well-known name, didn’t enter the fray to block him. (The second reason was Treen’s contention that his prior service in Congress would be valuable for Louisiana’s interests.)

Months later, on May 25, four days before the election, all this clearly was of little moment to the former governor. With his grandson missing since the 22nd, Treen was frantic and distraught.

“The campaign is not on my mind at this point,” Treen said that Tuesday. “There’s nothing I would not do or give up to find Jason.”

Granted, lost-hiker stories sometimes garner some national attention, especially if they drag on beyond a week. Yet there can be no doubt that only Treen’s prominence, and his dramatic suspension of his campaign to fly to Oregon, could possibly have attracted such massive coverage just three days into a search not for a small child but for a hardy, 20-year-old man.

Thank goodness for that extra attention: It was a news helicopter, randomly flying miles away from the main search area, that spotted bedraggled young Jason on May 26 in a remote, rugged area of Columbia Gorge. Reported the Associated Press, when Treen received the good news: “It’s the greatest day of my life.” Through tears, Treen added, “It’s probably the most emotional moment of my life.”

Treen returned home, two days before the election, to discover the flyers falsely tying him to Duke, along with reports of other Vitter tactics he considered “dirty tricks.” Appearing exhausted, overwrought and suddenly much older than his 70 years, Treen rashly appeared on TV, lobbing angry responses. His disastrous appearance undercut much of the sympathy his ordeal had hitherto attracted.

African-Americans, a small minority of the district, turned out only lightly — but they voted overwhelmingly for Vitter, ratifying Duke’s reverse-psychology gambit. The estimated margin in black precincts more than provided the difference for Vitter’s slim, 1,812-vote victory (61,661 to 59,849).

Treen, hurt and furious, mailed me a large file, almost like a legal brief, detailing Vitter’s allegedly nefarious conduct. It struck me as a compelling case — but, as I was deciding that my family’s longstanding friendship with Treen complicated the journalistic objectivity needed for an exhaustive treatment of the still-raw subject, Treen called and asked me just to let it go anyway. Airing more of his gripes, he said, would do no good for Louisiana.

Fifteen years later, that’s the Dave Treen I’ll miss. He was a man of significant personal ambition — but it was also an ambition to do things that were good and right.

New Orleans native Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor for National Review. You can follow him on Twitter, @QuinHillyer. His email address is QHillyer@theadvocate.com.