Mayor Ray Nagin's first State of the City address since Hurricane Katrina was vintage Nagin. There were flashes of the charm and passion he exhibited as a telegenic candidate in 2002, and there were rhetorical lapses that betrayed the kind of political and intellectual indifference -- even indolence -- that has haunted him as a mayor.
It could not have been easy trying to accurately assess the city's overall health 21 months after Katrina, particularly when a big part of any mayor's job is to inspire even in the worst of times. On that score, Nagin gave it his all, and I give him credit for the effort. It may have been his finest speech since taking office, but I'm not sure it was anywhere near good enough for what ails this city.
In fairness, New Orleans has come a long, long way since the federal government's floodwalls collapsed and inundated our city on Aug. 29, 2005. So has Nagin. The mayor burst onto the national stage by lashing out at President George W. Bush in the desperate days after the storm. He evoked that "pardon my French, but I am pissed" speech last week when he again pointed, this time a tad more diplomatically, a finger of blame at Washington and Baton Rouge -- asking, in effect, where's the money? -- and still again at the close of his address when he proclaimed over and over, "It's not our fault."
Indeed, the feds have let us down -- repeatedly. First, they gave us defectively designed and poorly constructed floodwalls; then they lied to us about the strength of the flood protection system they designed and built; then they failed to come to our city's aid immediately after Katrina; and now they are slow to keep the president's promise to rebuild "this great American city" no matter what it costs.
Nagin is right to point out those failures, but he has to be careful how he does it. The feds still hold the purse strings. And if he looks too much the mendicant, as Recovery Director Ed Blakely once put it, or too demanding on the other hand, he'll get nowhere. Unfortunately, political finesse is utterly beyond Nagin. I'm not sure he's capable of even contemplating it.
Moreover, the mayor's frustration with Washington's and Baton Rouge's slow response to New Orleans' plight is rife with irony; polls show an overwhelming majority of city voters are equally disappointed in his performance post-Katrina. Businesses here and elsewhere complain that his administration flat-out does not return phone calls. How many jobs have we lost as a result?
The good news for Nagin and for New Orleans is that, on some fronts at least, a sense of normalcy is creeping back into daily life here. He dwelled a bit long on the success of his new sanitation contracts, perhaps because he took so much heat for their cost when he awarded them, but there's no denying the French Quarter looks and smells much better these days. Ditto for many neutral grounds, which often look far neater than the overgrown lawns in front of many still-abandoned homes. He touted a new pothole filler and promised we'd soon see helicopters helping cops patrol crime-riddled neighborhoods -- all of which is good news.
Sadly, on the issue of crime, Nagin committed yet another gaffe: he referred to the recent spate of murders (six in four days) as another "blip" in crime statistics.
Excuse me, Mr. Mayor, but did you really mean to describe those six violent deaths as a "blip?" I doubt the families of the six people killed during those four days would describe their individual and collective losses that way.
Such casual indifference is Nagin at his worst, and it underscores a widespread feeling that while New Orleans may be on the mend, its recovery inches forward in spite of our mayor, not because of him.
- New Orleans may be on the mend, but its recovery inches forward in spite of Mayor Ray Nagin, not because of him.