New Orleans Deserved a Better Scandal than Ray Nagin's

AP Images/Gerald Herbert

Given the prosecution's voluminous case and the defense's lack of any except "Who, me?", Wednesday's guilty verdict in former New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin's trial on corruption charges was a foregone conclusion. But considering my adoptive hometown's—and state's—reputation for treating political scandal as a spectator sport, I was struck by how nobody relished the whole fundamentally glum business.  It wasn't a topic friends were eager to talk about or that even the most hard-bitten local humorists wanted to make merry with. Nagin had proved himself to be such a greedy, characterless boob that remembering the hopes he'd inspired way back when was apparently just too damn depressing.

My hunch is that's not least because New Orleanians, even more than most people, don't like to think of themselves as gullible. In hindsight, to have been so easily played for suckers—had they really voted for him twice?—can't have done much for their collective self-esteem.

I say "apparently" and "they" because I'm one of the post-Katrina newbies who didn't move to the city until after Nagin was out of office. In fact, in everything but age—most of the white hipsters cluttering up the Marigny and Bywater these days are decades younger than I am—I'm all too representative of the demographic shift he was playing Canute to when he made his once notorious "Chocolate City" speech on Martin Luther King Day in 2006, five months after the storm: "I don't care what people are saying Uptown or wherever they are. This city will be chocolate at the end of the day." Despite the Willy Wonka jokes his vow provoked, that may well have been the last time he tried to do right by his constituents.

Or some of them, since the coalition that originally put Nagin into office included plenty of well-off white folk (that's what "Uptown" means, and duh) as well as the city's rather less affluent African American majority (that's what "chocolate" means, and double duh). The latter's diminished post-Katrina share of the electoral pie, thanks to the refugees who didn't move back from Texas or wherever they are, is one reason his recently re-elected successor, Mitch Landrieu—who, to be fair, enjoyed plenty of black support both times he won—is the city's first white mayor in the generation-plus since Landrieu's father Moon recognized it was time to integrate local government.

Undoubtedly, New Orleans will have African American mayors again. It's tempting nonetheless to call Nagin the last mayor of Chocolate City, if only because that goes some way toward explaining the widespread bitterness that he turned out to be such an asshole. He won the job in 2002 by successfully casting himself in a role no voter should ever fall for: that of the virtuous outsider, untainted by the seaminess of greasy-pole politics, whose business-oriented skill set is just what the doctor ordered. Want to buy a bridge?

Since New Yorkers elected Michael Bloomberg three times and the result was the virtual eradication of everything that once made New York City unique, they may not have a hell of a lot to scoff at here. But Bloomberg came into office a zillionaire, so he fits our time's definition of selflessness. As for Nagin, a somewhat less world-shaking entrepreneur, the centerpiece of his first campaign was a promise to clean up City Hall's often-dubious contracts-awarding process. That was, of course, the system he gamed with all the originality of a Vegas video-poker player.   

Nagin's conviction also defines the decline of what might be called corruption's aesthetic dimension. Heck, at least Edwin Edwards was a colorful rogue. My favorite Louisiana politician of all time—Earl Long, Huey's baby brother—married Shakespeare and the Three Stooges in unholy matrimony for all time. But Nagin's only vice was a relentless cupidity. That proves he's dull as well as amoral, and you get one guess which sin matters more in a city so invested in the concept of lagniappe.

The trial's litany of kickbacks and favors had the monotony of the kind of movie coverage that's all about box-office gross. So far as we know, even Nagin's free trips to Jamaica and Hawaii were PG-rated fun for the whole family, meaning tragically short on cocaine and hookers. Ethics aside, it's grim to contemplate a world in which the Secret Service and even the IRS give better—that is, more prurient—value for misused money than the now prison-bound former mayor of New Orleans. 

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