It's impossible to gauge the extent of the damage that Mayor Ray Nagin's "chocolate city" and "God's punishing America for invading Iraq" remarks inflicted on New Orleans last week. Suffice it to say that we survived Katrina, but I'm not sure if we can survive Nagin.
His apology the next day notwithstanding, Nagin has become a cancer on the city's fledgling recovery. His political and governmental incompetence was bad enough before his MLK Day rant; now he has become an international embarrassment, another post-Katrina blight on New Orleans' reputation.
There are many things wrong with what he said, how he said it, when he said it -- and the insufficiency of his "apology" -- that I don't have the space here to fully discuss how badly he has hurt himself and the city. The plain and simple truth is, he was never a very effective leader; now he is utterly incapable of leading New Orleans. In order to lead, one must first unite. With his "chocolate city" comments, Nagin purposely attempted to divide New Orleans along racial lines. He couldn't lead a one-car funeral now.
I doubt he will ever recover. Think about it: if a white politician had made a crack about New Orleans becoming a "vanilla city," would black citizens ever accept his apology? Would responsible whites ever want to align themselves with him?
Moreover, the irony of Nagin trying to stir a black audience with an Afro-centric stump speech borders on theater of the absurd. Black New Orleanians from every socio-economic level have viewed him as "the white guys' black mayor" ever since his election four years ago. Last Monday, he looked and sounded like a bad parody with his preacher-like affectations and his clumsy attempt at street hipness. No one bought it in the black community. In fact, most African-Americans appear to be embarrassed by it -- or offended that he thought he could get away with such a cheap ploy.
"The worst part is that his message was the exact opposite of what Dr. King stood for," one black businessman told me. "He was off the mark in every respect."
And whites, once the bastion of his political support (he got 85 percent or more in many Lakeview precincts in 2002), now see him in a completely different light -- one that is not altogether different from the long-held perception in most of the black community. That is, the guy's not for real. He's at best a poseur and a charlatan, at worst a liar and a phony.
That he declared his intention to seek re-election three days later only underscores the extent of his delusions. He is a modern-day version of King George III, the British monarch whose porphyria-induced madness drove him to roam about in his pajamas, greet subjects as "my Lords and peacocks," and make wild declarations about America, which the Empire had lost years earlier because of his arrogance and incompetence. King George periodically enjoyed enough lucid intervals to keep the Empire together. There's no such hope for Nagin.
Sadly, the fallout extends far beyond the damage to Nagin's political future. The real damage can be counted in the millions -- if not billions -- in federal and private sector aid this clown is going to cost our city. Congress can finally stop accusing us of being corrupt. Nagin has given them a fresh argument: that we're stupid, incompetent, and led by a mindless racist.
In the private sector, what foundation or corporate giant would want to "invest" in New Orleans' recovery now? How many visitors and conventions will we lose? I'm told privately that the hospitality industry was bombarded with angry phone calls and emails canceling trips to New Orleans because of Nagin's comments. One tourism official told me the reaction from prospective visitors was "10 times worse than what we got from the images of the Superdome right after Katrina."
The madness of C. Ray is killing us. He should seriously consider resigning -- but I doubt that he could muster either the intellectual honesty or the courage to take such a step. His ego is too monumental, his myopia too mind-numbing, his detachment from reality too complete. It will therefore be up to us, the voters, to rid ourselves of him. Let us pledge our lives and our fortunes to doing so.