In my quarter-century in New Orleans, I do not recall any elected official taking office with as much promise and gleeful expectation as Ray Nagin.
It was, indeed, a bright new day back in 2002. Here was a man thought to be fully detached from the lurid machinations of the city's political cabals, which had fleeced the city's coffers for years and stanched any hope of raising the ethical standards of New Orleans' hopelessly inefficient government.
At the conclusion of his predecessor's second term, City Hall was imploding as a legion of Marc Morial's family members and friends were treated to the perp walk down at federal court.
It became clear the outgoing administration was rotten to the core. And while the administration's sycophants and factotums felt the heat of the feds and many served time, the mayor himself walked scot-free — all of which makes for an eerily similar scenario unfolding now in the waning days of the Nagin era, in which several of his allies are marched off to the hoosegow while the mayor remains above the fray.
Nagin came to power under the auspices of candor, integrity, technological savvy and political transparency. Reviewing the words I just wrote, it's hard — nearly impossible — to reconcile them with the man we now see swaggering his way out the door, disrespected, disgraced and dishonored.
Perhaps we should have known that any man who could convince New Orleans it needed a professional hockey team back in the '90s — as Nagin did — was not altogether of sound judgment. Then again, we took the bait, didn't we?
We took it then. Some still take it now. When he makes his weekly appearance on WBOK radio — that last media outlet in town to which Nagin will grant interviews — the phone lines light up with caller after caller praising the mayor for his chutzpah, for standing up to The Man, for speaking Truth to Power — for the Heckuva Job he has done toward New Orleans' recovery from Hurricane Katrina.
Listening to it, it is hard to fathom we are all watching the same movie. Then again, I guess some are watching in living color. Others are watching in black-and-white.
Strange, the things you remember. Back in the days immediately following his election, with the city in the throes of optimism and anticipation, I recall a handful of folks buttonholing me to confide that the new mayor was not what he appeared to be to the masses.
It was a small number of folks, whom I took to be bitter losers or disgruntled operatives for other candidates and other parties, who warned me that the new mayor had a dark streak that would one day show itself, to all of our surprise.
Truthfully, I can't even recall exactly who it was that told me such things; I outrightly dismissed it — and them — as piffle. I didn't believe it. Not for a minute. Again, it simply didn't jibe with what I was seeing, hearing, reading and feeling.
I had met and interviewed Nagin several times during his meteoric rise on the political scene — even shared a private lunch with him one lazy afternoon at a French Quarter diner where he seemed neither pressed nor distracted and we digressed from interview format to just shooting the bull and I admit: I was charmed.
My wife and her friends thought he was hot. My friends and I thought he was cool. The politiratti pronounced him wise and efficient. The media fell over themselves bestowing accolades. This guy — he had it all.
When he and I left the Clover Grill that afternoon, passersby immediately seized upon the mayor, handshaking, smiling, taking pictures, pressing close, thanking him, loving him; a new messiah had arrived.
The Messiah theme would stick with Ray Nagin, all the way through the phases of persecution and martyrdom. In the past year, he latched onto the concept of a "Shadow Government," a convenient catch-all phrase for any and all who would oppose or foil the mayor by any means.
A phrase we hear over and over in all of the media's final assessments of Nagin's tenure in office is this: "There has been a concerted effort to minimize my accomplishments," which is another convenient way of masking the fact that, for the past eight years — in another eerie similarity, this time to former President George W. Bush — the "mission accomplished" really wasn't.
In the same way that Bush managed to squander the goodwill of the entire globe in the aftermath of 9/11 with his bluster and warmongering, after Katrina, Nagin managed to piss away the greatest opportunity this city has ever known to come together despite differences in race, class and political affiliation.
Nagin's second term was about the self, the id, the ego. Anything that violated or opposed this sacrosanct trinity was identified as the enemy. I became one of them. When I asked him back in 2008 for an interview, he emailed me:
"You're kidding, right? You have spent the past two-and-a-half years since Katrina trashing me, writing lies, embellishing rumors, and looking for any little thing to turn negative and trying to convince the public that I should not have been re-elected. ...
"I wouldn't trust you or your organization to write your own birth date accurately. To hell with you. One thing I can say is you do not have a vagina but some real big balls :)
"Have a great day."
Yes, the emoticon is his. As for the vagina thing, well — here we are again, out of space. I've told this story before; maybe you've heard it. If not, I'll just have to try and explain that next week. If I can. If it's possible.
If you really want to know.