You don’t expect a professional Poker player to inadvertently reveal his hand. His face may betray him, or his confidence morph into hubris, but any experienced professional keeps his cards close. A novice is far more likely to sputter and fumble, ultimately exposing himself to the other vultures at the table.
This brings us to Mayor Landrieu. In the game of politics, Landrieu is supposed to be a consummate professional, a scion of a local political dynasty. Lately, however, in his management of the controversy over his scheme to raze four monuments, he’s been behaving like a rookie.
Mayor Landrieu started the removal process exactly a week ago when he sent a crew out in the wee hours on Monday to tear down the monument to the Battle of Liberty Place. The removal was treated as though it were taking place in an urban war zone. Workmen wore masks and paramilitary-style uniforms. NOPD snipers lined nearby rooftops.
The entire scene was more evocative of Beirut than the French Quarter.
Nobody knows who paid for the removal, and it later came to light that New Orleans firefighters were utilized in the face of strong opposition from their union. It has since become a PR disaster for a mayor obsessed with his own image and legacy.
Even for many of those favoring the removal of the monuments, the entire approach appeared to be overkill. There was no transparency whatsoever, and no credible threats existed to warrant such extreme security precautions. The sight of masked men arriving in the dead of night to take down a century-old monument was, to put it mildly, not the type of incident that advocates of free and open government support.
Moreover, it’s not clear why the removal itself was so pressing. The Liberty Place Monument had already been moved over 25 years ago from its position of prominence at the foot of Canal Street and later placed in an inconspicuous location behind a parking garage. It was simultaneously emblazoned with large plaque that effectively changed the meaning of the monument – from that of a triumphal celebration of a blow against Reconstruction to a memorial for the lives lost and a cautionary tale for future generations.
Taking the additional step of removing the monument entirely seemed like more of an effort to scrub the historical record for the sake of political posturing than an earnest attempt to right old wrongs.
However, the story doesn’t stop there. After forking over a mountain of chips, Mayor Landrieu attempted a salvage operation that consisted of going on the talk show circuit to defend his actions. The results were hardly impressive.
By Friday, Landrieu had finally snapped. After years of keeping mum on his plans for Lee Circle following the removal of Robert E. Lee’s iconic statue, Landrieu revealed that he would be picking from a grand total of five options for the revamp. Each seemed worse than the last.
First, Landrieu suggested placing an American flag on top of the existing pedestal and renaming the circle “Lincoln Circle,” an exercise in trolling worthy of the angriest, greasiest, and most angst-ridden teen on an internet message board. Lincoln was a spectacular president and, above all else, a conciliatory figure in the wake of the Civil War. Using his name to give the middle finger to those who supported retaining Lee’s statute as a memorial to the Confederate war dead – well, it exhibits a total lack of class to say the least.
Secondly, Landrieu proposed installing a natural gas flame to commemorate all war dead in history. This saccharine proposal, so blatantly lacking in conceptual focus, may as well have been for a memorial for all “good things” (you know, as opposed to all “bad things!”).
Thirdly, Landrieu actually proposed replacing the entire Lee monument with “a field for soccer or other activities,” despite the fact that it rests snugly inside a high-volume, multi-lane traffic circle in the Central Business District. If we’re going to put amenities like that in such a location, we should consider renaming it “Dead Child Circle,” because that’s what’s we’re going to get when a whole soccer team full of kids try to cross.
Fourthly, Landrieu proposed simply removing the statute and leaving everything else the same, which would look terrible. Obviously he wasn’t seriously proposing that.
So what was Landrieu actually proposing? It’s an old trick to propose a bunch of bad ideas to make your preferred option appear palpable, and by limiting our options, that’s exactly what Landrieu is pulling here. To wit, his last suggestion was to “replace the monument with a beautiful fountain and public art to create a Tricentennial Circle.”
Admittedly, that certainly sounds a great deal better than a middle finger, a bland tribute, a deadly soccer field, or a blank pedestal. However, it will also cost money – a whopping $10 to $15 million to be precise.
Landrieu makes no bones about preferring the “Tricentennial Circle” plan. “It represents Katrina,” Landrieu gushed to reporters. “It represents water as a life-giving force. It represents light. It represents aspiration and creates something that’s worthy of Paris and worthy of New Orleans.”
And what about the cost? It’s almost certainly true that your average New Orleans resident would prefer their tax dollars to go to repairing essential infrastructure than revamping a downtown traffic circle for the Tricentennial. In answering that question, Landrieu became positively flippant and revealed his disgust for the concerns of ordinary New Orleanians.
“Where are we going to get the money from? Maybe we can put some public money up if everybody doesn’t yell and scream about ‘You ought to be filling potholes with that money.’”
Landrieu’s words drip with condescension. How dare those grubby plebs complain about the quality of the roads when the Caesar demands tribute to build another statue to his own magnificence? Don’t they know their place?
I’ve been down countless roads in New Orleans so deteriorated that they seriously inhibit access for emergency vehicles. Our water is still largely supplied by lead pipes. Stop signs go missing for months on end. We have power outages whenever there are thunderstorms. Finding shallow comfort in gallows humor, we responding by laughing about how government services are comparable to the Third World. I suppose it’s easier than facing the reality.
In the midst of all of this, Mayor Landrieu has the unmitigated gall to mock the concerns of those he represents. He has made it abundantly clear that legacy-seeking crusade is more important than serving the people, that his crabbed, divisive view of a handful of historic monuments eclipses all other concerns. From government transparency to the cost-effective use of public funds, there is nothing Landrieu will not sacrifice to get his way.
His hand has been tipped. The only question now is if anyone will call.
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.