Roundtable: Nagin, Bush and New Orleans

Topics for Tuesday include: Mayor Ray Nagin's interview with Ed Gordon; President Bush's visit to the Gulf Coast; mixed results after a year of rebuilding in New Orleans; and Vice President Cheney's statement that White House policy has warded off terrorist attacks in the United States. Ed Gordon's guests are Marcelo Su rez-Orozco, Director of Immigration Studies at New York University; Republican strategist Tara Setmayer; and Robert George, New York Post editorial writer.

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ED GORDON, host:

This is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon. On today's Roundtable, Katrina a year later, and should male athletes get paternity leave?

Joining us from our Chicago bureau, Roland Martin, executive editor of The Chicago Defender. Mary Frances Berry, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, joins us from NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C. And Jeff Obafemi Carr, host of the radio show Freestyle, joins us from Spotland Productions in Nashville.

All right, folks, welcome. Roland, let me start with you. You heard the interview just a moment ago with Mayor Ray Nagin. Talk to me about what you're hearing from the mayor. I tried to go outside of what we've been hearing over and over and over again this weekend with interviews with him and get more personal with him in terms of how he's handling it.

Mr. ROLAND MARTIN (Executive Director, The Chicago Defender): I think Mayor Nagin is facing a difficult struggle in that he is damned if he do, damned if he don't. He says one thing, he gets criticized, then he has to turn around and apologize. And so, frankly, the stories that are coming out are not the kind of stories that you would want to see.

He is coming across as not being somebody who has it all together. And, frankly, he is going to have to make some very bold moves in order to change public perception of the kind if mayor that he is.

GORDON: Jeff, I'm curious. One of the things that's interesting here - Roland talks about coming across as not having it all together. That can be said, quite frankly, across the board - state, federal and local - if you take a look abroad, look at what happened here. But is this one of these situations that perhaps we're expecting too much from the government, that this is one of those instances that it was just too big?

Mr. JEFF OBAFEMI CARR (Radio Host, Freestyle): I think that it's huge. And I think we might be expecting especially too much from the city government. This is a mayor of a city. He's not the governor of a state, he's not the president of the United States. He is the mayor of a city.

I know that the crisis took place there, and it was a crisis that most mayors would cringe at if they thought of it happening to their cities. I think that there's not been a precedent for how to deal with that. And in the face of those circumstances, I think Mayor Nagin has done a great job of trying to grab this bull by the horns.

Now he's made some mistakes as human beings will make. But one of the things that you have to respect about him is that he does not try to politically cover that up. He says, hey, well, I was speaking in the emotion of the moment. Look at in the context that I was saying. And I think that that gives him a certain kind of grassroots legitimacy for articulating the pain of his constituents, and at the same time trying to navigate those murky political waters that he needs to navigate in order to get the support that he needs to get for his city from the federal government.

GORDON: Interestingly, Mary, he talked about the tirade that was heard across the world, as he suggested, when he went on a local radio station and literally cursed out the federal government to get down there, that they needed help. One would say that he lost control. Others would say that that was the moving force that caused Bush and others to get down immediately.

Professor MARY FRANCES BERRY (Professor of History, University of Pennsylvania): Well, the answer is both: he did lose control, and it did cause them to go down there. And if he hadn't lost control, then things would've been even worse. As somebody who didn't support Nagin when he first ran, I think that he has come through markedly well with all the storm and (unintelligible) in New Orleans and the forces that he has to contend with.

As Jeff says, he doesn't have the power to really change a whole lot in the city. The money comes from the feds, the states. The city doesn't have the money to do a lot of stuff that people think he should do. One of the decisions he has to make he talked very candidly, which is whether to do things - let the developers turn New Orleans into a playground or to try to do things to help other people who are poorer come back.

That's very tough. We won't know the answer this year on the anniversary. We probably, by next year, will know what the answer to that is. But for people who live - have lived in New Orleans, and many who voted with their feet to go somewhere else, that's going to be the crucial question.

If you're there because you live there because you love the place and you love the culture and you can find somewhere to stay and it doesn't change, then you stay. If you're there because you love a culture and it changes into something entirely different, you leave.

But Nagin, under the circumstances, sometimes he stays the right thing at the wrong time, and sometimes he says the wrong thing at the right time. But on balance, given the difficult circumstances that he has to face, and that the levees broke - that's the principle problem in New Orleans.

Let's never forget that the difference between New Orleans and the Gulf Coast is that the levees broke.

GORDON: Mm-hmm. Roland, let me ask you this real quick if I can.

Mr. MARTIN: Sure.

GORDON: What about the free political advice I tried to give him along the way, and that is stop painting this optimistic picture. You know, it might be better to go from a pessimistic end. We know that you want to keep the faith and keep the face up of a government moving forward. But when you're talking about half of the people gone, your tax base essentially eroded to absolutely nothing, when you talk about trying to run this fine balance of race and class, how do you make it happen? Because, as you suggested, damned if you do, damned if you don't. Better if you say I told you so.

Mr. MARTIN: I might get in trouble by this, but after watching all of the specials on television and listening to all of that, I put together my headline for Monday's Chicago Defender, and the headline was called Still Suffering. And my wife looked at it and got - and she said, well, why is that the headline? She said, well, you know, New Orleans is getting better. And I said, baby, this is what I do for a business. I said, you're watching television.

The fact of the matter is they are still suffering, and I refuse to paint that perfect everything-is-going-well picture when in fact it is still suffering. And so I believe that you are right.

But also, Ed, here's what I think Mayor Nagin has to do. He's at the bottom of the totem pole; and that is the federal government's at the top, then it's the state government, then it's him. What is Mayor Nagin's blueprint for New Orleans? I would be taking that as a road show: dealing with black media, television, radio, newspaper, galvanizing it that way.

Because otherwise it continues to sound like, well, I'm the mayor and I don't have much control. It's the federal government, it's the state government. I think you have to sort of step away from that and articulate what is your vision, and clearly what are the problems. We talked about this last time.

Here's the issue, here's the problem, these particular areas. And use the apparatus and not allow CBS or The New York Times or The Washington Post to paint a picture. Use a different medium in order to get your message out.

GORDON: Mary, I spoke with Marc Morial yesterday on an interview that will be played this coming Friday. One of the things that he said he's most bothered by not only with the mayor but with FEMA and others is he keeps hearing about these plans, these plans, these plans of preparedness. But if you don't share those plans with people and really get the plans out there, they do no good after the fact.

Prof. BERRY: And that's because the people don't know that there is a plan. And if it is, they don't know what it is, and it doesn't come down to them where they are. And so many of them, if you walk around the neighborhoods and you see people trying to make due or trying to make change, they just think that either nothing's happening. Or people who are from outside, who have moved away and were thinking about coming back, they don't know what the plans are.

They know they don't have any money. No money has dribbled down to the homeowners. And you keep saying, the plan, the plan, and nobody knows what the plan is.

GORDON: Jeff, what about the infamous statement of the hole in the ground that he made with Byron Pitts on 60 Minutes? Let's not go to the controversy -that's been talked about enough - but let's go to the substance of what he was saying. How much credence is in what he said to say, you had a concentrated area that you've not brought back because of in-fighting and all of what you need to do. I have an entire city that I've got to build back up. How much credence can be given in what he was trying to say there?

Mr. CARR: Well, I think it's obvious. Any observer from the outside or inside can see that there's a difference between several blocks that are destroyed and an entire city, most of which is under water. I don't think that there's much -there can be any - the logical debate about the breadth of those two things in terms of the difference and the magnitude.

So I think that that's something that we don't really need to debate anymore. Giuliani got a lot of credit for his response there. I think Nagin would've gotten the same credit if a few blocks of New Orleans had been underwater, too. But he had to deal with an entire city, and has to do so optimistically so.

Wanted to go back to something you said, Ed, in the suggestion of the optimistic versus the pessimistic approach. I think Nagin has to look at the environment around him and what hope will do for people.

I was under the car changing the oil yesterday and I had the oil filter on really tight and the filter wrench broke, and I couldn't get it off. But I was trying to turn it with my hand, and that thing was really, really hot. And I was getting frustrated, but I noticed the little notch on that thing was moving slowly. And that told me that if I kept pushing at it, it would eventually come through, so it did.

We often speak of faith as the substance of things hoped for and evidence of things not seen. A lot of survivors of Katrina embody this because they find that they're trying to turn their city in a positive direction and that the tool that they've been given - that being the federal government - is broken. But I think they see enough progress to give them pushing on.

And I think Nagin has to take that hope and to speak from that optimistic perspective to help turn this thing around.

Prof. BERRY: And also if I can tack onto that, it's - Jeff is exactly right. If you go, if you're in New Orleans and you're some of the volunteers working to rehab houses, you're the president of Dillard or the president of Xavier, and you're trying, you've got the schools open and you're struggling. And especially if you're Dillard out there in that neighborhood.

And you see people everywhere, working hard, trying to do something. You've got to be optimistic. They don't want the mayor to say, you know, hey, nothing's working here. No matter what we do it's not going to work. There's a balance there.

But people are working on their own to try to do something, and you don't want to demoralize totally. People need…

GORDON: No, you don't want to demoralize them, Mary - pick up on Roland, and please take your point - but you don't want to demoralize but you want to be realistic about expectations. Because just as bad is to build false expectations, have people buy into it, and then have no hope or faith at the end of yet a second devastation. Roland, go ahead.

Mr. MARTIN: Ted Turner always said you underreport and you over-perform. I think you're absolutely right. That you say what is what we have accomplished. This is how we have to go. And so you give those updates - how much debris has been cleaned up, how many houses have been rehabbed, how many restaurants have reopened - but here is the other work that we have to do.

But on the other point, that when you asked the question about the hole in the ground, I do think we have to recognize something and how people perceive something. We continue to perceive the World Trade Center as sacred ground. Tim Russert even used the phrase holy ground. When people use those kinds of phrasing, they have meaning.

And so people are dismissing the 1,800 deaths, the more than 1,800 deaths in New Orleans compared to the 2,800 in New York. I'm trying to compare the two. Certainly there are several blocks over here in this entire city destroyed. But when you elevate the World Trade Center above every other natural - every other tragedy in America, people have a different view.

I think people continue to dismiss, frankly, one year later what took place along the Gulf Coast, and that is the tragedy.

GORDON: Yeah, the 1,800 deaths in the Gulf region. All right. Let's turn our attention to something that's interesting from the vice president, and this is Dick Cheney. Dick Cheney that has suggested this week that…

Mr. MARTIN: What now?

GORDON: Sound policy decisions by the Bush administration are the reason that the United States has not been attacked by terrorists since September 11, 2001. He said the terrorists have mounted successful attacks overseas, but they have not done so on terra firma here because, Jeff Obafemi Carr, of the Bush administration's, quote, sound decisions.

Mr. CARR: Sound decisions. Well, it's an apt kind of environment that he's in. I'm glad he's making, it's more fitting that he's actually making these comments in Nevada because he's gambling here. That he's gambling with people getting this information and saying, well, okay, if you want to see us doing something the United States we'll just have to do that and test that.

I think it creates and contributes to the environment, the overall environment of fear that people have. And, to me, I think it provokes those kind of attacks to say provocative statements like that. And I don't think that it has anything to do with sound policy.

I think, as I've said before, that the war on terror is being lost because American citizens are living in a state of continual fear. We're waiting for the next attack and we're in the dark. So because we're in the dark it's a little bit, I think it's worse. Because you don't know where the blow is going to come from. So you're walking around, you're jittery and you're scared.

So I think that remarks like this are totally wrong, and I just don't agree with them.

GORDON: All right, let me speak for Mr. Cheney, Mary, and he will suggest that you just said that Ray Nagin should be optimistic and look at the glass half-full. That's where we're doing here, dog gone it.

Prof. BERRY: He's not being optimistic. What he's trying to do is frame an issue so they can win the congressional elections. That's what he's trying to do. This is all about politics, and we know this. And I think Jeff is right.

But I would add to that that we don't know why the terrorists haven't blown up anything yet in the United States. Maybe they chose not to. We don't know that. And when you do say, bring them on, like Mr. Bush said about Iraq, maybe, you know, maybe Cheney is saying, bring them on. I hope that's not what he's saying.

But I don't understand the arguments that he makes in support of this, and we don't know why the terrorists haven't done whatever they've done. But this is all about politics, and if you look at the substance of the argument - he claims that Iraq is part of it, that the war in Iraq has helped to deter the terrorists. And anybody who believes that, you know, they can buy this bridge cross from Manhattan to Brooklyn for $10.

GORDON: All right, Roland. Mary says it's all about politics. In that same sense, politics from the Republican side, those who are staunch Bush supporters will say that's the politic of what we've been doing. This war against terror is working.

Mr. MARTIN: This is not, this is a very difficult point to argue because it is very simple. There was an attack on September 11. There has not been one in America since then. And so on that point that is correct. Now when you begin to get into sound policy, that raises a different question, because many would suggest that this policy has created multiple numbers of potential terrorists across this globe.

I also look at this this way, Ed, there were nearly 2,800 certified death certificates issued from the World Trade Center. We are rapidly approaching 2,800 deaths of American soldiers in Iraq. And so I would say that we lost 2,800 lives because of terror, we're also are losing nearly that same number because of the actions of this administration in Iraq. Put that in perspective, Mr. Vice President.

GORDON: Jeff, that's an interesting point. Because as this body count continues to grow, it is harder and harder for any Republican to come out and really talk about the reasoning, the quote, sound policy as to why the United States is, in fact, across the waters fighting this war - based on the fact that now the American public suggests that they don't believe it's about democracy.

Mr. CARR: They don't believe it's about it. And I would continue to add on to what Roland said. Here it is, here are the numbers. You're now losing more people in a volunteer sense. You are asking people to go an donate their lives, to give their lives to some nebulous concept that has been ill defined, to say the least, in Iraq, in a place that is not physically, intellectually, psychologically tie-able(ph) to terrorism.

You're asking them to give their lives there, and you've done that. The 2,800 people or more, going on 3,000 people. And here you are where you have an accident, well, not an accident, but you have an involuntary loss of life on the other hand, on American soil.

So I don't think that's going to jibe well. It hasn't jibed well with the American public, and there's nothing that you can do to spin it in a positive direction.

Prof. BERRY: Well, Ed, I think that this, I think the arguments might work though…

GORDON: Fifteen seconds, Mary.

Prof. BERRY: Argument might work with people who take a simplistic view. The same ones who think that taking off their shoes means that that's why we haven't have any terrorist attack. And so this is an argument that is about the best one they've got, so I can understand why they're making it.

GORDON: Yeah. That's pretty simple, Mary. All right. Thank you very much, greatly appreciate it. Mary, Roland, Jeff, as always, thank you very much. We were going to get to Title Nine, we'll do so on another roundtable.

Next up on NEWS & NOTES, a new book has stories of families helping families after Katrina, and a street named Desire. It's a place in New Orleans's Ninth Ward that's rebuilding the community one house at a time.

You're listening to NEWS & NOTES from NPR News.

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