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Lip Flap

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In television and film production, there's a common glitch that occurs when the sound of someone's voice doesn't match up, visually, to the image of that person's lips moving. Sometimes the sound precedes, by just a few frames, the image of lips mouthing the words, and sometimes it trails the visual image. In either case, it makes watching the film or video disconcerting, because the sound and the picture are not in synch. Film and video editors call this problem "lip flap." In recent months, New Orleanians have witnessed the political equivalent of lip flap as they have watched Mayor Ray Nagin struggle to lead our city's recovery in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Sometimes the image of our "businessman" mayor just doesn't match up with the off-the-wall, even anti-business sounds coming out of his mouth.

Unfortunately, Nagin doesn't have an editor standing over him to get his misstatements back in synch with his image before they do damage to himself and others. Worse yet, he appears to lack an internal editing device -- more commonly known as tact -- to stop himself from looking and sounding at best inconsistent, at worst delusional. Moreover, Nagin's "lip flap" appears to be getting worse, and that bodes ill for New Orleans. The mayor needs to understand that when he opens his mouth, people hang on every word. He therefore should choose his words carefully. All too often, he seems to revel in his newfound notoriety for "going off script." He pretends it's cute or hip. It's neither, and he needs to cut it out -- right now -- because he is seriously harming the city's image, not to mention the collective psyche of New Orleanians, most of whom have endured more than their share of hardship already.

The first post-Katrina example of political lip flap was the mayor's infamous "chocolate city" comments on Martin Luther King Day, which actually contradicted MLK's message of racial harmony. Given the tenor of the mayor's re-election campaign after the remark, it's difficult not to conclude that his "chocolate city" comments weren't, in fact, calculated to reconstitute his flagging political stature in the black community. Intended or not, Nagin's strategy worked: he won 80 percent of the African-American vote in the May 20 runoff and was re-elected with slightly more than 52 percent of the vote. It's worth noting that his margin of victory over Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu was the smallest in decades for an incumbent mayor seeking re-election.

On election night and the day after, Nagin gave two more examples of his penchant for misspeaking. During his victory speech, he noted that some of his former supporters had "gone to the red light district," but that he forgives them. The reference is to New Orleans' infamous Storyville district, with its seedy brothels that placed red lights above their entranceways. Was the mayor effectively calling everyone who supported Landrieu a whore? That's exactly what many Landrieu supporters thought. Nagin's message was all the more confusing because he uttered the "red light district" comment during a digression from a prepared victory speech in which he called for New Orleanians to work together going forward. If unity was his message, then why use prostitution as a metaphor to describe the people he seeks to draw to him?

The next morning, Nagin again went off script and effectively invited businesses that question his leadership to leave town. "I hear all their rhetoric about them leaving," Nagin said. "I don't believe it. Business people are predators. And if the economic opportunities are here, they're going to stay. If not, they're going to leave -- and they're going to have big jets, and they're going to fly back for Mardi Gras, and they're going to fly back on a Friday for Galatoire's, and they're going to have a wild time. So I don't worry about that stuff, because I think there's enough interest around the country that we're going to attract top business people. The secretary of commerce brought them in two or three weeks ago -- 37 Fortune 500 companies. All of them were positive and excited about the opportunities here. So God bless 'em. I hope they stay. But if they don't, I'll send 'em a postcard."

Here again, Nagin displayed his characteristic swagger, a faux bravado that he probably thinks makes him look cool. The business community's reaction was predictable. "If we're encouraged to leave, then I think it gives many of us doubt on whether we should stay here," Gregory Rusovich, president and chief executive of TransOceanic Shipping Co. Inc., told The Times-Picayune, adding, "We are struggling to keep our business in Louisiana, which is not the easiest place to operate a business."

We can only hope and pray that Mayor Nagin will come to understand that every time he goes off script, he risks losing badly needed jobs -- and good will. If he wants to unite New Orleanians, then he needs to give a consistent message to all New Orleanians. The campaign is over. There's no longer a need to look cool or hip. So please, Mr. Mayor, no more lip flap. For the sake of your city, stay on script!

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