LETTER FROM MEMPHIS: A Tale of Two Speeches 

George Bush got all the headlines. But Ray Nagin actually said something.

Last Wednesday, November 30th, Ray Nagin, the Mayor of New Orleans, was here in Memphis, meeting with former constituents semi-permanently resident in our city, compliments of Hurricane Katrina. About 800 of them showed up that evening at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church in Midtown, to hear what their mayor-in-absentia had to say about the Big Easy’s future, and what he had to say about his and their place in that future.

 

Nagin’s Memphis “homecoming” was hardly a blip on the national news scene, especially since all media eyes were focused that day upon another speech, one that was given by another politician whose career also took something of a Katrina detour. George W. Bush may have never mentioned the hurricane in his rally-round-the-flag effort at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, but watching the two men speak that day gave me real insight into what works and what doesn’t in the world of oratory. Whatever his faults (and I’m told he has many), Ray Nagin’s speech indicates that he “gets it” when it comes to leadership. George W. Bush hasn’t a clue. Not a clue.

 

The refugee crowd that greeted the New Orleans Mayor in Memphis was similar to those at "reunions" he’s sponsored throughout the South: mostly black, but clearly a cross-section of displacement – old and young, rich and poor, people from all walks of life. Indeed, the audience at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church was just about as carefully screened as a one randomly gathered on a Manhattan subway platform.

 

Contrast that with the entirely different "crowd" that listened attentively to the President earlier that day at Annapolis. The Naval Academy’s corps of midshipmen formed, literally and figuratively, a captive audience, one with a vested interest in applauding every word spoken by their Commander in Chief. (The official transcript of Bush's speech contains 24 applause breaks.) In such circumstances, Bush could have asserted that the moon was made of green cheese, and the midshipmen would have given him a vocal high-five.

 

Actually, the President said things almost equally far-fetched. "We will never back down, we will never give in, and we will never accept anything less than complete victory," he told the middies, delivering his now-customary empty rhetoric about freedom and democracy, even though the entire universe by now is well aware of how his Operation Iraqi Freedom has backfired big-time. By Thursday morning, in fact, all the major newspapers were pointing out factual errors in W’s speech, one which was judged by all but his most loyal partisans as something of a rant, a speech as much detached from reality as, well, he is.

 

This should have come as no surprise. Since his re-election, the President has remained steadfastly within his own private bubble, as if he were doing a reality-TV version of “The Truman Show.” Bush doesn't seem to notice or even care that there's a real America out there beyond the military bases he always visits, the whirlwind photo-op road trips to garden spots like Latvia and Mongolia, the well-screened crowds at Republican party gatherings, and, of course, the friends who gather for his many holidays at his beloved ranch in Crawford.  Tellingly, the President hasn't had a full-fledged press conference since July; in fact, he hasn't had any meaningful face-to-face encounters with what might be called "ordinary people" since the Presidential debates last fall.

 

By contrast, Ray Nagin had more face-time with randomly selected Americans in his brief hours in Memphis last week than George W. Bush probably has had in the past year. Standing at the church podium, behind a bank of a thousand bright-red holiday poinsettias, and dressed nattily in a dark blue suit -- in person, Nagin has a self-assured presence that doesn't always come across on television -- the Mayor of New Orleans got down to business almost immediately: 

 

"I wanna speak to you tonight in the spirit of truth. I'm gonna tell you what I know (about the situation in New Orleans), and tell you what I don't know. And then I'm gonna try to answer all your questions as best I can. And if I can't, I'll try to get back to you with real answers."

 

Just try to imagine George W. Bush starting his Academy speech – or for that matter, any speech – with those lines. Imagine the stunned stage-propped midshipmen not knowing what hit them.  He wants us to ask questions, without anybody vetting them first? Then imagine Bush trying to answer those questions with something besides formless jargon. Then take a deep breath. Imagine hell freezing over.

 

Back in Memphis, Nagin wasn't kidding about the Q&A part. He spoke for about half an hour, and then spent the next two and a half hours mostly listening, as his reluctantly-transplanted constituents trooped up to the microphones in the aisles, sharing with the Mayor their criticisms, their opinions, their hopes, and their fears.

 

Their comments were sometimes petty – one woman simply couldn’t understand why the Mayor didn’t know why her company had moved to Memphis -- and most ended up being statements rather than questions.  One passionate Catholic priest spoke at length between his tears about his affection for his damaged city's history and culture. And some folk were downright confrontational, like the woman who wondered why the Mayor had snuck off for a Jamaica vacation two weeks after Katrina hit.

 

But Ray Nagin took a licking and kept on ticking. Nothing fazed him. He stood at the podium politely listening to each and every question -- over forty people eventually spoke out, before they had to shut down the microphones – along with the lights – at eleven pm.

 

All the while the Mayor seemed more psychiatrist than politician. He told the woman who complained about his Jamaica trip that he understood her point, but hoped she could understand how he felt like he needed some quality time with his family, the family he hardly ever sees. (The crowd did, as the applause that followed indicated.)  He made suggestions to those who wanted tangible advise, commiserated with those who simply wanted to share their sorrow, and in the process “uplifted” nearly everyone in the room. As another more famous Southern politician might have put it, he felt their pain. 

 

One thing was perfectly clear: for better or worse, Ray Nagin is comfortable in his own skin, something that George Bush just as clearly is not. With all kinds of domestic storm clouds circling over his White House and the Iraq war he sought out so deliberately, the President spends most of his time now circling the wagons. Ray Nagin takes a different approach, being unafraid to "shoot straight and let the chips fall where they may," as one frustrated Memphis refugee grudgingly admitted at the microphone.

 

Over the past year, George W. Bush has been asked time and time again if he thought he’d made any mistakes in Iraq. Every time, he answers the questions with a shrug and a smirk, and words to the effect of “Mistakes? How would that be possible?” Nothing gets in the way of the President’s vision of a rosy future for the Middle East, one that he himself has done so much to carve out and create. Not even two thousand dead Americans, and untold more innocent Iraqis. Not an America made less safe against terrorism. Not even a hurricane called Katrina.

 

Here’s how Ray Nagin answered the same $64,000 question about his handling of Katrina. In fact, he not only answered it; he asked it rhetorically, as if to save his audience the trouble of asking:

 

“If I had had the chance, would I do anything differently than I did that last weekend of August?”

 

He paused and smiled at the church crowd. “You’ve gotta be kidding. Of course, I would!  Here are three things I wish I’d done differently…”

 

Nagin ticked them each off, one finger at a time. “I blame myself for not ordering a mandatory evacuation earlier. That’s 50,000 people we didn’t get out, that we could have and should have.”

 

Then he spoke directly about the infamous placement of transit-system buses that coulda/shoulda been staged on higher ground. “We staged them above the hundred-year flood plain, but that just didn’t cut it. It was a mistake. My bad.”

 

Then came the Big One, number three: “My biggest mistake?  That was assuming that, after three days of waiting, the cavalry would come. I thought everybody knew that this was too big a job for our city government, for any city government.

 

“I kept waiting, thinking help was on the way. It wasn’t. And it still isn’t…”

 

The church got as quiet as if a funeral was in progress, as Nagin completed his thought. “Doing it again, I would not wait for the cavalry. I would try to think of something else to do."

Who could blame him? As yet another famous politician from the South once said, inexplicably referencing our own state, of course, but, hey, it's the thought (?) that counts:

"There's an old saying in Tennessee — I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can't get fooled again." p>

 

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