Battle of the Anniversaries

September 11 vs. Katrina: A Defense of Mayor Ray Nagin


Ray Nagin can't seem to get his sewage-covered shoes out of his mouth. Or at least, so the story goes.

Since Hurricane Katrina devastated his city, the New Orleans mayor has gotten two rounds of real attention from the press. Both times Nagin was dragged in front of cameras like a recalcitrant child to apologize for something he said. His crimes? Pointing out that (a) there are a heck of a lot of black people in New Orleans, and that (b) there's still a hole where the World Trade Center used to be.

Both of these statements are screamingly, excruciatingly true. Which seems to be of no interest at all to the legions of politicians, cable news personalities, and bloggers who are shocked (shocked!) by Nagin's choice of comparison, and at a time like this.

And so, here we sit, in the midst of a news cycle pitting Katrina's one-year anniversary against Sept. 11th's five-year mark. Nagin just happened to step up to offer a colorful side-by-side comparison at the perfect moment. Even as pundits bitch about the lack of spontaneity in politics ("It's YouTube's fault!" "The bloggers did it!"), they tar and feather anyone who fails to use approved euphemisms. Meanwhile, weeks of dull-as-dirt anniversary coverage bring news junkies to the brink of despair. Soon we won't need any breaking news at all, just anniversary after anniversary with the same characters cycled in and out of television studios to make scripted remarks about "tragedy" and "the challenges facing our nation."

Enter Nagin. After being prodded about some drowned hulks of cars still lying about, he uttered the words that kicked off the most recent round of anti-Nagin fun: "You guys in New York City can't get a hole in the ground fixed. And it's five years later. So let's be fair."

Which is a pretty good point, actually. On Meet the Press on Sunday, Nagin conceded that he "should have probably called it 'an undeveloped site as of yet'." But he shouldn't have. The neutrality of "an undeveloped site as of yet" isn't among the many feelings the World Trade Center site evokes. For people anxious to get building restarted, it does feel like a hole in the ground—New Yorkers have been calling it The Pit for years. And as Nagin said, "I meant no disrespect for anyone. I have seen death, I've seen the destruction, and I was just using it as a comparison to show how difficult it is for people to rebuild after a major disaster."

It's true that Nagin probably should have known better than to mock New York, even gently, to CBS in a documentary scheduled to air days before the anniversary. But God help him, he was trying to explain how hard it is to rebuild a demolished city. Reporters ask hard-hitting questions of New Orleans, which all seem to be "Shouldn't this be cleaned up by now?" while remaining relatively untroubled that it has taken five years of squabbling and there's still no plan for a handful of buildings at the WTC site.

In the "chocolate city" case, Nagin was doing what every politician does—even Nobel Prize winners like Yasser Arafat—delivering different messages tailored to different audiences. Of his contention that God wants New Orleans to be black, he later said, "it was designed to talk to the African-American community for the most part, not only for here but throughout the country—and to make sure that they understood that they were welcomed in this city."

So why does Nagin always get the short end of the stick? Some cry racism, and Nagin—no shrinking violet when it comes to playing the race card—probably wouldn't object. It's certainly true that the line is fine between New York hero Rudy Giuliani ("It's about time law enforcement got as organized as organized crime") and Big Easy goat Nagin ("Get off your ass and get down here to fix the goddamn biggest disaster in the nation's history"), between quirky Giuliani ("Chinese people always skinny, never fat") and racist Nagin ("This city will be chocolate at the end of the day"). Walloped by forces outside their control, Ground Zero became a symbol of American resilience and strength, even as rebuilding efforts got bogged down, while New Orleans became a symbol for everything that's wrong with America—racism, government corruption, and inertia.

However, as Nagin proposed, let's be fair: The amount of federal money appropriated to rebuild after Katrina could cover all the federal spending on post-9/11 disaster relief, with enough cash left over to build another International Space Station. True, the man has to rebuild an entire city, but he hardly lacks for cash on hand, or any resources money and/or political clout can possibly procure. Does Nagin deserve his lumps?

I say, no. We need more Nagins, and more Giulianis. Not because of their brilliant governance, but because they're periodically interesting to listen to. Anybody watching CSPAN's coverage of 2008 presidential contenders over the past few weeks would have been utterly horrified; each hopeful has been more boring than the one before. As the dueling anniversary coverage on every cable channel drones on, our only hope is for someone with a bit of a sense of humor and a willingness to say something everyone in the room hasn't heard before.

Nagin said he was doing just that, trying to address an "unspoken thing about who's coming back, who should come back, what type of city we are going to have in the future." He had the last laugh on the "chocolate city" brouhaha, though, pouring this deliciously absurd explanation for his comments down our throats:

"How do you make chocolate? You take dark chocolate, you mix it with white milk, and it becomes a delicious drink. That is the chocolate I am talking about. New Orleans was a chocolate city before Katrina. It is going to be a chocolate city after. How is that divisive? It is white and black working together, coming together and making something special."