(Michael Tisserand is the former editor of Gambit Weekly.)
By Michael Tisserand
Among my many old obnoxious Katrina habits that Gustav awakened was this one: offering very little time or patience to people who aren't clearly obsessed with the present and future condition of New Orleans. It got kind of ridiculous -- while living in Chicago for a two-year extended evacuation, I'd give people a little secret test to see if they "got it" before I'd grant them an audience. I'd tell them I came from New Orleans and then listen close, scrutinizing their face in extreme close-up, Larry David-style.
So it was with mixed feelings that, in the middle of my Gustav evacuation back in the Midwest, I learned that Barack Obama was speaking at a Labor Day rally in Milwaukee. I wanted to go, but I didn't really want to hear about anything except storm surges. The news out of New Orleans was still uncertain when we left our news vigil at the television and drove into the city for "Laborfest," an annual celebration that featured bad music, good roasted corn, and bingo.
While I waited in line to get into the speech, I started quizzing people who were bedecked in Obama buttons and various union T-shirts: You think he should be here or should he have canceled and gone straight to the Gulf Coast? After all, isn't McCain getting a free pass to look presidential in Mississippi? Most dismissed the idea as photo-op politics. One woman shrugged off my question and asked me what I'd heard about Sarah Palin's daughter. I was about to fix her in my old Katrina glare when we were interrupted by a burst of applause....
We both turned around. It wasn't Obama. Just a union man holding up a baby in the air.
I took my seat. An hour before the speech, I got a call from Megan, a New Orleans friend now living in Chicago. I told her where I was. "Didn't he cancel that speech?" she asked with surprise. Yet another reminder why one should only be around New Orleanians in evacuations.
After a benediction and the pledge, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett spoke. I looked up when he talked about the importance of the weekend, but he was referring to the 105th anniversary of Harley-Davidson. The crowd -- I never got the numbers but it was much more than a gazillion -- cheered. I started to wonder how I could get back to watching the MSNBC anchors talk about the "overlapping" of the levees.
Then a massive guy in khaki pants and a bright blue shirt took the stand. He seemed a bit more shy than Barrett, and he quietly asked for a moment of silence for those in harm's way from Gustav. After more than a moment, he thanked the audience, who erupted in loud, sustained applause. Then he went on with his talk about working families, health care and foreclosures.
From there, it never veered too far from Louisiana. Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle talked about Gustav and how Wisconsin will "do anything to help our brothers and sisters," to more sustained applause. A series of speakers were all introduced by a circus-type announcer who would bellow, "Ladeez and Gentlemennn ... Senator Russ Feinnnngold!" Then there was a raffle for a new Harley. Finally, another man who also looked a little hesitant walked out. His name was Andy and he worked at a paper mill in a town where, he said, even the school mascot is a paper maker. As I wondered what a paper maker looks like, he talked about how the mill is closing and 600 workers are losing their jobs -- which is pretty much the whole town. Then he brought on Obama.
I didn't time the speech but it was a short one. Obama started by saying, "I wanted to speak about ..." and then spoke for awhile about everything he wanted to speak about, including the kinds of lay-offs that Andy was going through. But he was scrapping that speech, because in the Gulf Coast, he said, "Help is going to be needed. Damage is going to be done." He revisited a top theme -- how there are no red states and blue states in times of disaster. He effortlessly tied together the "spirit of unity" that we need in disasters and the kind of unity that gave us Labor Day. Halfway through what was becoming very fine political speech, he said that it was "not a day for political speeches."
He also revisited themes from his February speech at Tulane University, about how people around the country "go through their own quiet storms" of losing jobs, housing and health care. I didn't hear any specific numbers about the necessary cost of coastal restoration -- and I was listening -- but given that he was speaking on Labor Day in a rust belt city in a swing state, I decided his focus on New Orleans and the Gulf Coast showed leadership. Even if he did refer once to "Plaquemines County."
On my way out, I passed the big guy in the blue shirt -- the one who'd been the first to mention the Gulf Coast. I thanked him for the moment of silence. His name is Phil Neuenfeldt and he's the secretary-treasurer of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, and he said he'd found out three hours earlier that he was going to speak. So I put him to the test. "I'm here from New Orleans," I said. He shook his head. "That's my home away from home," he said, and he looked personally worried. "Some people go to Mexico, some people go to Florida. I go to New Orleans." We chatted about food, then shook hands.
Obama did a very fine job with his political, non-political speech. But on this Labor Day, I'm going with Neuenfeldt.