The Big Easy
Drain the swamp and the gators bite you.
President George W. Bush looks out over devastation from Hurricane Katrina as he heads back to Washington D.C. (Photo by Paul Morse/White House via Getty Images)
Old-fashioned corruption is the best-known method for running a city—works pretty good at the parish level, too.
I know whereof I speak. I was born and raised in southern Louisiana, home to arguably the most corrupt politics in America. Mayor Daley? Al Capone? Please. Boudreaux and Thibodeaux may wear shrimp boots and trucker hats, but they could squeeze a dollar out of a crawfish without breaking a sweat.
Corruption is the feng shui of bayou country. It is how public life is run; it is the contours of that most postlapsarian of all relationships, that between the ballot and the fisc. If you don’t know what lagniappe means, how that concept of doing a little extra to make the social gears mesh up pokes holes in Yankee illusions like “transparency in government” and “rule of law,” then you really must be from somewhere else. Corruption is just human nature.
Those who crave power and money will always find it, one way or another. Politics is what you call the segment of human life where people like that congregate. And corrupt politics is what we in southern Louisiana have always, after red beans and rice and gumbo, done best.
Corruption has a bad name, but it isn’t all bad. In fact, I can’t think of any other way I’d like southern Louisiana to be. It’s a very human thing, humane even, to feather one’s nest with almost-legally stolen cash (kickbacks, “consulting fees,” campaign slush funds) and to line one’s pockets with the money that circulates through the hardened arteries of the body politic. It’s when politicians act like human beings and don’t get any big ideas that government stays out of one’s personal business. City hall stays where it belongs, in the city and not in my living room.
Corruption aspires to nothing great. Corrupt politicians—and, no, there are no other kind—simply play their part in the sad, shabby pageant known as human life. Oh, old Broussard got caught buying a Cadillac for his mistress using his city expense account? Well, that’s too bad. Good choice of car, though. What’s that? Gustave in Terrebonne got the no-bid contract from his brother-in-law the mayor? Ah, at least somebody will do the job. If not Gustave, it would just be Andre, and they’re both as lazy as they come.
Doesn’t make any difference. Levee’s going to break someday anyway. And then we won’t remember who owed what to whom. Laissez les bons temps rouler.
They say that democracy was invented in ancient Athens, but I’m not so sure. I think that if we didn’t outright invent it, we at least perfected it in southern Louisiana. Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential run was defined by the pithy “the economy, stupid” pep line by James Carville, a Cajun worthy of every bit of pride and stereotype that goes along with the name. The Athenians thought democracy was a form of government, apparently. Them Greeks was wrong. It’s a form of corruption. You put your ballot in the ballot box, and the government puts checks in your mailbox. That ain’t Chicago. That’s Huey P. Long.
New Orleans, my family’s Old Country, is known as the Big Easy. One hears that expression all the time, but I wonder if outsiders know what it means. Folks not from southern Louisiana seem to be under the impression that New Orleans is a kind of break from real life, a place where you are liable to see grown men walking around in bedsheet diapers and old women doing palm reading and voodoo shticks in front of the St. Louis Cathedral.
Sure, there’s plenty of that. And plenty of other nonsense besides. But that’s not what’s so easy about New Orleans. What’s easy is that you just relax and let human nature run its course there. It’s not so much about dress-up and make-believe as it is about a high tolerance for human folly. It’s just a given that politicians will be venal—it’s their dharma, like that of the kshatriyas is to fight and that of the albatross is to fly. No one knows how, but the politicians are corrupt and the people are reasonably Catholic and, somehow, a given city or parish gets governed. More or less. It’s a give and take.
That’s what’s so easy about it. You don’t have to do anything special. Show up with your fallen humanity and the rest will take care of itself. Go to Confession. But don’t expect any miracles to make human beings into something they haven’t been since the Garden.
Soon enough it’s five o’clock, and it’s off to the bar to watch the ceiling fans go slowly round and round like a metaphor for this cosmic existence that doesn’t make much sense, this samsara of a life where the good and the bad roughly even out in the end. Drain the swamp, you D.C. types say? I wouldn’t do that if I were you. No telling what you’re going to find underneath. Best to leave things as they are and get on with your own business as best you can.
Harry Lee was the sheriff of Jefferson Parish when I was a kid. Jefferson Parish is Metairie, which lies cheek to jowl with New Orleans. Nobody in their right mind would be in New Orleans after dark outside the French Quarter, but Metairie was safe as your grandmother’s front porch. Why? Because Sheriff Lee saw to it that nobody from New Orleans strayed into Metairie. How did he do that? Class profiling, with heavy doses of racism. Harry Lee’s parents were from Guangdong, China, but danged if Harry Lee wasn’t the most Louisiana politician ever. He won re-election again and again, six times in a row. He was the sheriff of Jefferson Parish for nearly thirty years. Was it corruption to have your officers pull over young black men in jalopies if they were in Jefferson Parish at night? It was. And the citizens of Jefferson Parish loved Lee for it.
Here’s something strange, though. Here’s something to write a dissertation about if you’re looking for a topic. Harry Lee kept New Orleans criminals out of Jefferson Parish and did so using the ugly logic of rebaked Jim Crow. Nobody liked how Sheriff Lee kept crime down in Metairie. But they did like that there was little crime. But then along comes an honest-to-goodness racist who’s proud of the ugliness, David Duke, that he appreciates Lee’s methods and thinks that discrimination is grand. Almost everyone in Metairie was appalled.
Duke flipped the thing upside-down. He wanted the perfection of corruption. He wanted to take this unseemly and frankly horrid reality of southern Louisiana, the reality that Harry Lee parlayed into a lifetime political career, and turn it into something for its own sake. I remember feeling sick to my stomach when it was explained to me that David Duke didn’t like black people. What in God’s name was wrong with the man? Imagine going through your life hating others, I thought. I felt very sad knowing that there were people in the world who hated as an avocation.
Duke is from Oklahoma, incidentally. Puritan country up there. No wonder he’s so screwed up. If Duke had been from Louisiana, he might have just shut his mouth and tried loving his neighbor instead of spouting off. But outside of New Orleans the big easy is overt racism, contempt for other human beings. It’s easy to hate. It’s hard to love.
The thing was, Harry Lee didn’t hate black people. He hated crime. Remember there are black people in Jefferson Parish, too. They voted for Harry Lee like everyone else did. And across Lake Pontchartrain, where we had moved to live on a crushed white shell road, there was even less crime, because Slidell was even farther away from New Orleans than Metairie was. Our black friends and neighbors out in bayou country knew it as well as we. They grew up in the same weird world that we and Lee did. A certain level of corruption keeps worse things at bay. Don’t rock the boat, because God knows what’s below you in the bayou.
Harry Lee cut his teeth under Hale Boggs, incidentally. Rep. Boggs was on the Warren Commission. He figured out that the FBI was up to no good. He went and said so on the record. Wanted to clean house, apparently. Uh oh. Not a year later, Boggs was on an airplane in Alaska when that little Cessna disappeared without a trace. Drain the swamp and the gators bite you.
Lee knew better than to call out the feds in public. The example of Boggs was more than enough instruction in how to go along with the current. But something has changed in New Orleans. It’s not the same city it was when I was growing up.
I think it started around Katrina. I was gone by then, off in the world doing other things. I saw on the news that the city was under water after a massive hurricane blew through. Not entirely unexpected, given that New Orleans is below sea level and surrounded by a river and a lake both connected to the Gulf of Mexico. But catastrophic. And yet, I expected life to go on pretty much as before, once the drywall was pulled out and the soggy couches thrown in the dump.
But then the feds showed up.
Katrina had become a shibboleth, a political code-word for attacking George W. Bush. President Bush had turned the country into a political revival tent. Everyone was fired up about spreading the American Way of Life. We were off in the desert somewhere, bombing infidels or something. For freedom and democracy. (Who in their right mind kills or dies for the democratic corruption we have in Orleans Parish?)
All the while the swamp in D.C. continued to rise. Washington corruption is something entirely different. It is ideological. It’s a Yankee-style of corruption, underpinned by big ideas about saving the world and elevating the human condition.
Bush was an evangelical crusader, a man on a mission. Blaming him for the fallout after Katrina was a way to recall his attention to the “homeland.” But Bush was wilier than we thought. Katrina was all Bush needed to turn New Orleans into yet another Federal Cause. With Katrina came the federal money. It was the New Deal all over again.
All the Boudreauxs and Thibodeauxs lined up at the trough. Unlike the old days, however, they started to mouth the odd platitudes of the distant capital. Corruption in southern Louisiana lost the populist touch. It wasn’t the economy, stupid. It wasn’t a chicken in every pot and every man a king. It was Transformative Government. It was Diversity and Inclusion. It was Social Justice.
That’s when New Orleans really started to go to hell in a handbasket: when the corruption polarity flipped from, “A dollop on my sundae from the community jar,” to, “Let us all repent and believe in the power of democracy.”
The sloganeering went woke around that time. Mayor Ray Nagin vowed to turn New Orleans into a “chocolate city” post Katrina. This was about as shocking as the filth that came out of the mouth of David Duke. Again, you’re not supposed to make corruption an end in itself. You’re not supposed to be racist so that the world will stop being racist. You’re supposed to not be racist yourself and hope that, someday, other people do the same.
New Orleans is the Big Easy, remember? Don’t go socially engineering everyone. Especially not when everyone knows that you, the politician, are no better than anybody else.
Nagin wasn’t buying it, though. He had found a new, and very old, political trick. Divide and conquer. That is just too, too easy. Too easy for the Big Easy. It’s too easy, to stand on a podium and be a racist ass. David Duke is perhaps the stupidest man in North America, after all. He has one idiotic idea and has repeated it ad nauseam for decades. New Orleans is much more complicated than that. And also much more complicated than Nagin’s race-tinged pandering.
Corruption is a way of life in New Orleans. But Nagin and the new race politicians used a cheap trick to pry people out of the comfortable complexity of a corrupt culture. The Big Easy became overly simplified, black against white. In reality, many people are both (how’s that for complicated?). But after Katrina it was Plessy vs. Ferguson again. And then it was Katie bar the door.
Earlier this month, news reports indicated that New Orleans was on track to be the murder capital of the United States this year. Small wonder. The city’s district attorney, Jason Williams, is trying the new-corruption method, namely letting criminals go free in pursuit of racial healing. Harry Lee could have told Williams that murderers make bad healers. The old corruption would have kept those punks in jail.
But that kind of old-school corruption takes dedication. It takes, above all, an honest assessment of the human condition. It requires seeing the political life as an exercise in managed expectations. It means coming to terms with the fact that everyone is a wretch and nobody is going to save anybody else. Subcutaneous melatonin content doesn’t affect the state of the soul. We’re all sinners. As such, no D.A. with big dreams is going to undo the wounds of Jim Crow. That would be too easy.
What a fool like that is going to do, what he is doing, is to make the Big Easy into a free-for-all. And now it’s Murder Gras every day of the year. Most of the victims are black. My, my, the irony of it all.
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It used to be that we in south Louisiana knew that we were all sunk in the mire of sin and venality. Corruption was just the way things were. Edwin Edwards, the governor when I was a boy, later went to prison for racketeering. Everybody knew he was guilty. When he got out, he tried running for office again.
He would have won, but times had changed. Louisiana voters want the perfect candidate now. They could have had good old, no-good Edwards, and all would have been right with the fallen world. He would have gone back to racketeering and we could have lived our lives in peace. But today in New Orleans, politicians have to pretend to be messiahs. And voters go along with the ruse.
That’s the new big easy, I guess. Acting like we’re just shy of perfection. It’s a national phenomenon. And it’s tearing our country apart.