In the two weeks since the New Orleans Saints won the NFC Championship Game and launched the NFL franchise into its first Super Bowl, a good deal of national attention and well-wishing has descended upon the city.
That’s been a good thing. But along with the kudos and good feelings have come an aggravating, and, frankly, insulting, patronization of New Orleans and Louisiana. President Barack Obama personified the attitude perfectly last week when, asked by ABC News’ Diane Sawyer what his Super Bowl pick was, he said:
I guess I’m rooting a little bit for the Saints as the underdog partly just because when I think of what’s happened in New Orleans over the last several years and how much that team means to them. You know, I’m pretty sympathetic.
This, along with a Public Policy Polling survey out last week that had Democrats rooting for the Saints by a 36-21 margin while Republicans were split evenly, is pretty telling stuff.
New Orleans has been the poster child for lefty pity and paternalism for a long time, and particularly since Katrina since the hurricane created the Left’s somewhat-accurate narrative of Bush administration incompetence. The storm, and the failure of the federally-built levees to hold back floodwaters that would destroy vast swaths of the city in its wake, became a political mother lode for the Democrat Party – and it still is.
Otherwise, when notorious liar, former ambulance chaser and abusive cad John Edwards announced his ill-fated candidacy for president in 2008, he wouldn’t have used the city’s Ninth Ward as his backdrop.
Otherwise, Democrats wouldn’t have brought up Katrina ad nauseam every time the war in Iraq came up in discussion – like, for example, during the 2008 debate over Bush’s $162 billion war appropriation when it didn’t include Katrina recovery funds (those voices fell silent a year later when the Obama stimulus package contained no dedicated funding for Katrina recovery; instead, it was argued that the federal funding pipeline was full and red tape, rather than cash, was the problem).
But while Katrina fed into Democrat memes about poverty, rapacious corporate greed and racial victimization, idiotic statements by Republican congressional leaders like Larry Craig and Denny Hastert to the effect that rebuilding New Orleans was a waste of money and that the city’s politicians and people in general would only steal what swag came their way helped move a narrative along that the GOP was happy to kill the city out of racial animus. Scores of billions of GOP-appropriated federal Katrina recovery dollars couldn’t wash away the perception that white Republicans were trying to use inaction to gentrify the city, and when the Bush administration frowned on Rep. Richard Baker’s idea for a quasi-public corporation to buy out destroyed properties from upside-down mortgagees in the city and restore them to commerce by getting developers involved an even stronger case was made. For a time it got so bad that in 2006 a Republican candidate for then-Congressman Bill Jefferson’s seat ran on a “Make Levees, Not War” slogan.
Thus was the hook set nationally for New Orleans as America’s permanent sob sister. Here you had a racially-divided city where the black community was seen by one side as the victim of white racism and poverty resulting from discrimination, while the other side saw the city as beset by a litany of failed left-wing policies and the dependency class they perpetuated.
But both sides failed to see the obvious – namely, that New Orleans’ story was about people, not policies. And while the city certainly absorbed a lot of federal dollars, and while certainly there was theft and fraud involved in the recovery, local actors have driven the comeback that the Saints’ success have shone a light on in the past few months.
Wright Thompson’s sensational piece for ESPN.com in December brilliantly captured the character of New Orleans, circa 2010. The city is battered and bruised, sure – but more than that it’s defiant, resurgent and more optimistic now than ever in recent memory. A new class of entrepreneurs has taken up residence in New Orleans, young businesses dot the landscape, Hollywood celebrities and others routinely turn up in the city’s restaurants and on the property tax rolls, the restructured public schools in Orleans Parish operate mostly on a charter model which has infused the city’s educational system with a spirit of innovation and rather than the old mentality of government programs to fix the world’s problems the attitude now reflects a severe distrust and ridicule of politicians and a spirit of self-reliance.
It was expected that the beleagured and incompetent Ray Nagin would personify New Orleans. Nagin does not. To the extent a government official in the city holds that title, it’s U.S. Attorney Jim Letten for his crusade of taking down crooks who steal recovery dollars and the tax revenues of the city and its suburban parishes. The local reaction to Sen. Mary Landrieu’s Louisiana Purchase affair surrounding the Obama health care bill was a harsh one; rather than a grasping, corrupt caricature presented nationally of New Orleans and Louisiana the reality of the city’s people is commonly one of disgust with the slimy deal-making they’re rejecting locally anywhere they see it.
After all, “Dollar Bill” Jefferson’s congressional district is now represented by a Republican, Joseph Cao, who was improbably elected in a big Democratic year in 2008 as the city’s voters rejected the theft and fraud of the long-time corruptocrat – and Letten has put away the majority of his crooked family. In suburban Jefferson and St. Tammany Parishes, Letten’s investigations have succeeded in removing old-time sleazeballs like Mandeville mayor Eddie Price (a Republican) and Jefferson Parish president Aaron Broussard (a Democrat). The old machines are being dismantled, and the public is glad to see it.
The Saints themselves and their relationship with the city and the state have been transformed; in the recent past owner Tom Benson was cast, not unfairly, as a money-grubbing corporate welfare recipient in constant shakedown mode, current governor Bobby Jindal managed to put a longstanding threat of the team’s relocation to rest by making Benson and the team a partner in the resurgence of downtown New Orleans. In the relatively near future the area around the Superdome will be brought back as a theme-park of sorts with Benson as the proprietor; if ever there were questions about his loyalty to the city those have been put to rest. His granddaughter, Rita Benson LeBlanc, who has the operational control of the team, has proven an attractive and vibrant ambassador as any city could hope for.
This is not to say it’s a totally new day in the city. Today is Election Day in New Orleans, and by all accounts the city’s electorate remains majority black. And while that electorate seems likely to choose as its mayor a white candidate in Mitch Landrieu, the first non-African American mayor since Landrieu’s father Moon held City Hall in 1970’s, Republican dreams – if ever they truly existed – of “taking over” in the Crescent City have proven unfounded. A Landrieu administration is likely to produce much of the same left-wing policies and government paternalism which prevailed during New Orleans’ pre-Katrina decline.
But if so, the new mayor will do so at his political peril. This is no longer a city or a region tolerant of the failure and incompetence of the past. And while a full recovery from the hurricane is still a few years away and its effects aren’t going to be forgotten soon, New Orleans is no longer a city in decline – it has a pulse, pride and a direction again.
While the Saints spent the majority of their first 40 years in existence flirting with the cellar, and personified a city happy and comfortable in decline, the franchise’s current team also personifies New Orleans. It’s a team with great talent but, often, humble beginnings. Drew Brees, pound for pound the NFL’s best quarterback, was cast aside as a casualty of injury in San Diego despite blossoming into an elite passer there; he’s flourished in New Orleans. Darren Sharper fights back age as the league’s most prolific thief. Johnathan Vilma was considered damaged goods as a Jets linebacker; he’s in the Pro Bowl now. Jeremy Shockey was considered a flake and a cancer with the Giants; he might be the heart and soul of the Saints. Pierre Thomas (undrafted free agent) and Marcus Colston (7th-round pick) were nobodies before getting a chance in the Black and Gold. And so on.
And the oddsmakers might have the Saints as an underdog, but the smarmy sentiment surrounding the club’s entry in the sweepstakes down in Miami is something of an insult. After all, this team won 13 straight games before a swoon at season’s end due to injuries; the Saints had home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs because they earned it. This was no wild-card team who barely made the playoffs; they completely dominated most of their opponents this season.
So if the nation wants to pull for the Saints tomorrow night, that’s fine. But win or lose, the team’s accomplishment in getting to the Super Bowl – as a metaphor for the overall upward direction of the city – should put to bed this narrative of the team and the town as a lovable basket-case upon which politicians and media pundits can project their pathologies and philosophical fetishes.
New Orleans has had enough of that, just like it has had enough of the bad football and worse leadership it was known for prior to the hurricane. Let the Saints be judged on their accomplishments – and let New Orleans be judged the same way.