February 18, 2014
NEW ORLEANS — A security guard and a lawyer walked into a bar. Sounds like the beginning of a bad joke. It’s bad, all right, but no joke.
Everyone in this town, including two drinking buddies, was talking about the federal public corruption trial of former mayor Ray Nagin.
“So,” the guard asked the lawyer, “what’s going to happen?”
What happened was this: Nagin was convicted of accepting bribes and found guilty of 20 out of 21 counts. Nobody yet knew the outcome the recent day I listened to men and women on the street, in cafes, stores and bars. The trial was in progress. But Nagin already was toast in the court of public opinion.
Back to the bar scene. After a long response that detailed in legalese the bribes accepted by Nagin — including exotic vacations, meals, granite for the family business and money — the lawyer predicted Nagin would do time.
The security guard frowned and said: “I bought him a Big Mac once, and he super-sized it.”
That, in a nutshell, was the beef on the street against Nagin. While everyone in Post-Katrina New Orleans was struggling, living like refugees, hurt to the quick, Nagin super-sized the perks of his office. He made hay while the sun definitely was not shining.
Nagin became nationally famous when Katrina smote his city. His televised appeals for help were dramatic, the profanity heard ‘round the world. And after Katrina, voters rewarded him with a second term, giving him the benefit of the doubt about his sometimes-emotional and erratic performance as mayor.
After all, there was a flood of emotion, a tsunami of confusion. I defended in print both Nagin’s curses and then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s tears. It was a time to cuss and cry.
Everybody knew he played hooky, acted cocky, but we couldn’t know for sure his sins weren’t mostly those of omission. Until now. Nagin was the 60th New Orleans mayor and the first ever to be charged with corruption. Probably plenty of others deserved to be, but he was the first.
Among the 21 charges were wire fraud, bribery and money laundering. A real smorgasbord of corruption. Before and after Katrina, prosecutors proved.
Nobody seemed all that surprised it happened. A mayor on trial is just one more thing to laugh about in the Big Easy. People here have seen smoke, fire and rain. They have seen a former governor sent to prison and return to star in a reality television show. “But Nagin really disappointed me,” a young engineer told me.
In the latest edition of Krewe du Vieux’s spoof newspaper, all kinds of “electile dysfunction” is mentioned. And in its wild and vile Mardi Gras parade, a man marched in this sandwich sign: “Ray Nagin took us for granite.” T-shirts with similar messages are on sale. But then Nagin always has been good for T-shirt sales.
While irreverence and humor might be better coping mechanisms than crying over spilt milk, you have to wonder if the threshold for tolerating corrupt officials isn’t now higher than the levees. Not just in Louisiana, but across the American political horizon.
“Dirty politics” is becoming as redundant as “cold beer.” And we keep buying the burgers.