I’m not sure that you could ever find two political figures more disparate than Mayor Mitch “Sinkhole” Landrieu and Pierre T. G. Beauregard.
This is not to say that there aren’t similarities. Beauregard, like Landrieu, was born into a wealthy and influential family. However, unlike Landrieu, Beauregard soon established himself independently of his family name.
After graduating second in his class as West Point, Beauregard served as an army engineer and later as a brevet captain in the Mexican War. After returning from the war, for a period of roughly twelve years, Beauregard was put in charge of the army engineering department of “the Mississippi and Lake defenses in Louisiana.” He was subsequently appointed as superintending engineer of the U.S. Customs House in New Orleans, which, despite its recent construction, was rapidly sinking on one side. Perhaps the only reason the building still stands today is due to Beauregard’s dedication and expertise.
Thus, it would be appropriate to say that proper engineering was a particular concern of Beauregard. He was as much a builder as he was a soldier.
After the Civil War broke out, General Beauregard entered the service of Louisiana, his native state. He initially served as the first Confederate general officer, and after Appomattox, he took an oath of loyalty to the Union and received a full pardon in 1868. His right to run for public office was restored by act of Congress in 1876.
After the war, Beauregard quickly became involved in politics. He initially joined the Reform Party, which supported civil rights (including voting rights) for freed slaves in an attempt to form an electoral coalition to rival the Republican reconstruction government. Later, Beauregard joined the Young Men’s Democratic League, a party that sought to challenge the dominance of the Republican Democratic Organization, a corrupt, white supremacist political machine also known as the “ring.”
Beauregard’s Democratic League focused on clean government and providing effective, essential services. In its 1888 platform, it called for ensuring “the best of levee and drainage facilities, to save the city from the overflows which made lakes of lands in the rear of the city, and brought desolation to the residents of those sections.”
Accordingly, it came as little surprise that the Democratic League named Beauregard as its candidate for Commissioner of Public Works, then an elected position. Beauregard, as a former army engineer with a widespread reputation for being an honest, reform-minded citizen, handily won the election.
Alas, Beauregard’s hopes of reform and good governance were quickly shattered. As Beauregard biographer T. Harry Williams wrote in his seminal biography, “Napoleon in Gray,” Beauregard came in as an expert in “[d]rainage and sanitation” who “believed he could really make a contribution to the well being of his town.” Alas, “the public works department was viewed by the politicians as a patronage haven.” When Beauregard attempted to substitute the worst hacks with competent professionals, he was rebuffed by the City Council.
Dejected and beset by ill-health, Beauregard resigned his position as Commissioner of Public Works after only three years in 1891. He died a mere two years later.
Beauregard was an honest man and a good public official who sought to expand and preserve public infrastructure. By contrast, Mayor “Sinkhole” would prefer to play politics with taxpayer dollars to the exclusion of maintaining public works.
We’ve seen the results of Landrieu’s indifference in recent weeks. Despite record revenues, including a budget surplus from this past year, the city pleads poverty whenever a catastrophic failure occurs. It is no exaggeration to say that sinkholes are developing left and right. The legendary chasm on Canal Street is only the latest iteration. The city is well aware of various compromised water and drainage lines and their role in collapsing streets, but it continues to sit on its hands.
And in the midst of all of this, Landrieu has had the temerity, the unmitigated gall, to successfully push forward an ordinance authorizing the removal of Beauregard’s equestrian statue near City Park on the pretense that his service in the Confederacy renders him unworthy of being memorialized. It’s as though Landrieu’s political capital is worth so little that dishonoring a dedicated former public official such as Beauregard is more important than the rebuilding the infrastructure he facilitated.
Under this administration, our priorities have gone awry. Petty political nonsense has supplanted basic needs, and we are paying the price for that. This is exactly why Beauregard resigned in disgust as head of public works, and it is exactly the reason why our public infrastructure remains in such disarray today.
There’s a definitely difference between Landrieu and Beauregard. It’s the difference between a well-paved road and a gaping sinkhole. Aside from an empty pedestal outside of City Park, the latter will be Landrieu’s sole legacy.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.