Notes from Atlantis

Random Thoughts from the Crescent City

Monday, May 22, 2006

Notes from Atlantis 24

Dear Folks,

So, Ray Nagin won.

New Orleans, at the end of the day, remains a Chocolate City. The land of dreamy dreams remains a land run by a lunatic who’s actually as smart as a whip, with a penchant for telling it like it is (except when he remembers to be a politician). Our next four years will be determined by someone who’s not afraid to use bad language to his superiors when they screw up, who enjoys riding in Mardi Gras parades, who kept President Bush waiting on Air Force One while he shaved his head (Nagin’s, that is...although someone should shave our commander-in-chief... maybe Sweeney Todd?) And someone who’s not afraid to cry and otherwise behave like a real person when faced with his city of ruins (and no, I don’t mean Asbury Park).

So what does it all of this really mean? Search me. As promised, all I can give you is my first-hand impressions as things go along. So here goes...

To begin with, I think our mayor was reelected for a combination of four reasons. First of all, people liked him better than Mitch Landrieu. He’s a real person, as I said, visibly engaging and funny, whereas Mitch came off as a quintessential Democrat circa 2006...careful, bland, nakedly ambitious, but constitutionally incapable of saying or doing anything that smacked of real passion or new ideas. He was Bill Clinton Lite, screened through one too many focus groups, and people down here didn’t respond to that.

Second, people felt Nagin understood what they’d gone through, and up to a certain point, I agree. No, Nagin didn’t lose his house. No, he was never at any real risk, barring wind damage to the office building where he rode out the hurricane (although riding out a potential Category 5 hurricane is, come to think of it, kind of a gutsy thing to do). He could, and did, leave the city at any time, rather than being stranded on a roof. HOWEVER, and it’s a big however, he gets it. He saw the bodies floating in the water. He’s the one who pleaded that there were people trapped in the Convention Center, when the federal government still thought the Convention Center and the Superdome were the same building. He saw the Thing. He was there. He smelled the smell. And does that matter? Yes, I think it does, at least up to a point.

The third reason I think people voted for Nagin is because they though he was given a bad rap. Right after the storm, there was more finger-pointing than occurs in your average kindergarten. Nagin did his fair share, but by and large he’s been proven right by subsequent events. The Army Corps of Engineers, FEMA, and the Federal Government are all far more culpable than the New Orleans Mayor’s office, whether for pre-storm negligence or post-storm sloth and graft. Governor Blanco appears to have been completely overwhelmed by the events of last August, although she’s rebounded and is back to her old ways of rewarding cronies and doing little else. Nagin, by comparison, looks pretty good.

That doesn’t answer the question of whether he could have done more (the blame game generally works better on sins of commission than sins of omission, unless they’re really flagrant). It seems clear, at least in some circles down here, that Nagin ignored the close-call posed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004 and didn’t provide enough safety and sustenance in the Superdome/Convention Center (not to mention enough bathrooms!) and enough transportation to get more people out of harm’s way. That’s disturbing. He had charge of a limited number of factors, but he didn’t do a flawless job of managing those factors he could. Some people down here see him as criminally negligent; some as overwhelmed; and some (in Robert Penn Warren’s lovely analogy) as a man trying to make a single-bed blanket accommodate three people on a cold night. I don’t know. I kind of incline towards the latter explanation, but then I’m naturally charitable.

The fourth reason I think people voted for Nagin is, paradoxically, the best argument for electing him and the best argument for electing Mitch Landrieu. Because he’s apparently more principled than Landrieu is. Mitch’s father, Moon, by all accounts knew how to horse-trade in the bad old days, and he brought in the Morials (bad old days redux) and apparently Mitch is equally unfazed at getting his hands dirty in pursuit of his goals. I don’t mean he’s a crook, but the conventional wisdom is he knows how to deal with crooks. He could in theory have worked with William Jefferson (our current representative, poised for indictment, whom I know first-hand to have solicited a bribe from one candidate for City Councilmember-at-Large and to have successfully solicited another). Nagin, by contrast, has been reluctant to suffer either crooks or fools lightly, and the fools and crooks have been swift to take their revenge. Whether he learns to accommodate them (and he’s got a fairly new City Council to work with) may make a substantial difference in the next four years. He’ll be a lame duck, so he won’t have to court public favor...but he’ll still need private favors, and I’m not sure he’s got the stomach to go after them. We’ll see.

I’m also not sure what kind of a signal Nagin’s re-election sends to the outside world, specifically the world inside the Washington Beltway. Will we be seen as terminally frivolous and stubborn for re-electing “Mayor Wonka”? Will we be seen as a city where sentiment still trumps common sense (which is probably true...but it’s still a bad argument for reinvestment)? Will our continuing to have a black mayor send a (good) signal we’re still a racially tolerant city, or will Washington’s (and Wall Street’s) racism enable them to further write us off? Will Nagin’s optimism be seen as bullish or bullshit? I don’t know. After all, an administration capable of starting a war because “Saddam Hussein tried to kill my daddy” may be equally capable of saying “Drop dead” to a major port just because the mayor of said port was once less than craven to the powers that be.

But Nagin may also be the saving of New Orleans. His reelection is an absolute, four-square statement to this city’s displaced residents (still the majority of its population) that the mayor’s office is still on their side. Those wavering about coming home have, at least in theory, one more reason to do so. If Nagin can send a strong signal to these people, while turning the financing of the city around, then there’s hope.

Here’s what it comes down to. A lot of New Orleans’ future is beyond Mayor Nagin’s control. He can’t revamp the schools, that’s the state’s responsibility. He can’t rebuild the levees...he can’t provide flood protection...he can’t provide emergency housing...he can’t even remove the remaining storm debris. That’s the responsibility of the Army Corps of Engineers. He can’t appropriate money from Congress, that’s President Bush’s job (ha ha ha...that’s the sound of me laughing hollowly while the price tag for Iraq continues to escalate). He can’t, above all, control global warming and the ocean’s currents, or the current (high) temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico. A real Category 5 hurricane could possibly kill us. A good-sized one could probably put us on life-support right now. And the bottom line is Mayor Nagin (or Mayor Landrieu, or Mayor Guiliani, or Mayor Jesus Christ) is completely prevented from doing jack shit about that.

What the mayor CAN do is restructure our financing and chains-of-command to provide basic city services (police, household garbage collection, working stop lights, emergency medical care) which can lure in private investment (which is the only real way this city will rebuild, barring a sudden paradigm shift where the Bush administration starts supporting a New Deal). It can provide a safe, encouraging climate, with tax incentives and an efficient, streamlined, HONEST bureaucracy, to bring outside industries in and rebuild the industries we have. It COULD be done. It COULD happen. If we avoid flooding for the next year or two, and if we get back enough population to provide a viable work-force, we could appear as a good place for people to come and make money. Which is ultimately the way all cities thrive or fall.

I don’t know if Ray Nagin is the man to see that that happens, but I’m not certain Mitch Landrieu was either. I hope to God we’ve made the right choice.

Let’s see.




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