In Defense of Defending Ray Nagin

I can’t agree with Cam on Ray Nagin. MBowen, seems to me to make some good points; it does seem a real shame that Nagin is being pilloried on conservative radio and all over the blogosphere. Ray Nagin seems more unlucky than incompetent to me.

Imagine you’ve been elected mayor of New Orleans.

Your city is mired in the welfare culture and the crime rate is so high that everyone lives with some degree of fear; drug addiction is on the rise; corruption permeates every level of city and state government. A large percentage of your city’s population lives in the kind of poverty that middle class Americans think exists only in the Third World.

In addition to all that, you know that a direct hit by a hurricane could destroy the city. Decades of mismanagement, corruption, and poverty have kept New Orleans from putting adequate intrasfructure and planning in place. But that’s been true for at least forty years. The city’s escaped that disaster so far, despite decades of neglect by local politicians.

Which problems do you focus on? The priorities Ray Nagin chose make sense—or at least should be understandable to those of us who, in our own lives, tend to let our day-to-day responsibilities get in the way of our stocking up on duct tape, plastic sheeting, and plenty of bottled water to prepare for the next terrorist attack.

Nagin chose to invest his political capital in the areas where he could do the most immediate good: beefing up the police force, battling corruption and cronyism, promoting economic growth, struggling to get a grip on New Orleans’ disastrous public school system.

Take a look at the text of his May 2005 State of the City Address. Conservatives will not agree with everything he says. But the speech as a whole is an amazing speech for a black Democratic mayor of a Southern city. To quote one example:

LET ME TELL YOU A STORY ABOUT MY EXPERIENCE IN MANAGING DIVERSITY. MY FUNDAMENTAL BELIEF IS PEOPLE HIRE THOSE WHO LOOK LIKE THEM AND MOST ARE NOT RACIST. [my emphasis –e.k.] WHEN I WAS AT COX, IF I HIRED AN AFRICAN AMERICAN FEMALE TO RUN A MAJOR DIVISION AND I TURNED MY HEAD SHE WOULD HAVE ALL AFRICAN AMERICAN FEMALES WORKING FOR HER. THE POINT IS PEOPLE TEND TO HIRE PEOPLE WHO LOOK LIKE THEM AND WITH WHOM THEY HAVE THINGS IN COMMON. THAT’S WHY IT IS IMPORTANT TO HAVE DIVERSITY AT THE TOP.

Many conservatives may not agree with “diversity” as a goal at all. But when have you heard any Democrat talk candidly about race—as if he were genuinely interested in how people of one race end up disproportionately represented in some jobs—instead of using racism as a stick to beat his political opponents with?

Or consider his plan to turn 20 of the city’s worst-performing public schools into centers for the remedial education of parents. I’m suspicious of public schools’ ability to teach anyone anything, but I’m impressed with any politician who sees that the real reason most very poor children are very poor is their parents’ lack of some important immaterial things.

But even if Nagin can’t be faulted for lack of planning before the hurricane, didn’t he do a horrendous job of managing the crisis, once it hit?

MBowen goes through the whole thing blow by blow and seems to me to do a pretty good job of exonerating the mayor.

The only point I’d like to add is that it’s easy to imagine Nagin’s also being blamed if he had made the exact opposite choices and events had worked out differently.

Suppose Ray Nagin had done his best to evacuate the city thoroughly and efficiently at any cost, as soon as he was warned about the hurricane—and then the hurricane hadn’t hit New Orleans, the levee hadn’t been breached, and the city hadn’t flooded. The almost-empty city would very likely have been looted by some of the same criminals who looted it after the hurricane—and that would have been Nagin’s fault. Other criminals and drug addicts would have terrorized and hurt innocent citizens on the city’s buses, instead of in the Superdome and Convention Center. And conservative talk radio and the blogosphere would be jumping all over Ray Nagin for failing to control the situation and allowing people to die.


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