Mayor Ray Nagin isn't the first New Orleans mayor to become known for his bizarre statements. Forty years ago, during and after Hurricane Betsy, then-Mayor Victor Schiro was known as "Mister Malaprop." To be sure, Schiro's verbal flubs were innocuous, even innocent and charming, compared to Nagin's gaffes, which more often than not inflame and divide us. For example, Schiro once dismissed a critic by saying, "That's the way the cookie bounces." On another occasion, as Hurricane Betsy approached the city, he went on live local television to reassure citizens with the words, "Don't believe any false rumors unless you hear them from me." In his own way, Mayor Vic did reassure us.
Like Nagin many years later, Vic Schiro faced a tough re-election bid. It was during that campaign that he uttered another of his memorable quips -- this one in response to criticism from The Times-Picayune that he was refusing to state his positions on the important issues of the day. After days of front-page needling from the newspaper, an exasperated Schiro finally called reporters and said, "I'll tell you what my position is. My position is if it's good for New Orleans, I'm for it!" The comment became a defining moment for the feisty, diminutive mayor and a rallying cry for his re-election campaign, which he won. Over the years since then, voters and politicians would apply his mantra to any number of situations.
Today, as our city struggles to find hope amid the ruins of Hurricane Katrina, Mayor Schiro's words -- "if it's good for New Orleans" -- take on a whole new meaning. Back in the 1960s, they were intended to be vague. Today, they can mean adopting an attitude of selflessness, a commitment to the greater good, and a renewed sense of civic duty and pride. Above all, they can serve as a clarion call in a city divided along lines of race and class, a city whose leader has exacerbated those divisions to suit his own selfish political and egotistical ends. In such times, we all need to think about what's good for New Orleans -- all of New Orleans -- and unite behind those things.
We are a city of survivors. We have survived floods, famines, hurricanes, fires, epidemics, invasions and occupations. We are not a city of black survivors and white survivors, nor are we Latino survivors and Asian survivors. We are one and all New Orleans survivors. Nowadays, we are Katrina survivors. Yes, we are black, brown, yellow and white. We are part Asian, Mexican, Honduran, Middle-Eastern, Native American and European. But at our core we are New Orleanians.
Claims of some to the contrary, the flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina was a great equalizer for our city. We are all, literally and figuratively, in the same boat now. We're all cleaning up. We're all struggling. We're all renovating. We're all waiting in lines. We're all frustrated. We're all affected by the surge in crime -- and we're all concerned about the city's leadership vacuum. Some may be farther along the road to "recovery" than others, but we are all hobbled by the malaise that has enveloped our city. Above all, we're all worried about our future. We all want to maintain hope in ourselves, each other, and even -- however faintly -- in our leaders. At a minimum, we all hope that some of them will step up to the plate and do what's good for New Orleans.
When the news is bad, or when our leaders let us down, it's easy to lose hope. At such times, we all need to remember that our city more than any other embodies the eternally American traits of hope and optimism. We are, after all, built on a swamp and surrounded by water, right smack in the middle of the hurricane belt. If that's not optimism, what is? To the outside world, we are an anomaly. They wonder how we can return to a city below sea level and expect to be protected. We think the best answer came last week, on the anniversary of Katrina, from New Orleanian and historian John Barry, who wrote in USA Today: "[P]rotecting New Orleans is the classic example of something we can't afford not to do. Those who believe New Orleans can survive as a smaller city and still serve the rest of the country as a port are mistaken. ... It isn't just New Orleans that needs it; the national economy needs it."
Another New Orleans author, Jason Berry, noted "encouraging signs" that same day in The Boston Globe: "The French Quarter is largely unchanged; restaurants and music clubs are humming. The convention business is slowly getting back on its feet. Billions of dollars in federal aid should arrive soon for underinsured home and business owners. For a while the city will resemble an old mining town, with sales taxes feeding starved city coffers." Berry goes on to note that our mayor is clueless when it comes to running a city, but he concludes that New Orleanians stay, or return, "because we love the city as too human, too dream-driven to leave."
A romantic view, perhaps, but no more so than the spirit that has enabled us to recover from every other catastrophe. Ours is a city of optimists and survivors. One way or another, we must all rededicate ourselves to being good for New Orleans.