Thursday, February 14, 2013

In the early days, he was bursting with confidence*

(Getting caught up.  This has been sitting in draft since the Carnival-Superbowl interruption.)

This is a sort of point-counterpoint piece by Stephanie Grace and Clancy Dubos where we delve into the mysteries of  the NOLA punditocracy's favorite parlor game, "Where Did Nagin Go Wrong?"

For what it's worth, I think Grace has a slightly better handle on things than Clancy does. Public perception of Nagin (and especially the image of him cultivated by the media)  may have made a major shift during his second term, but that doesn't mean Nagin himself was ever any different.  Grace and Clancy both seem to understand this now.  Each admits to having been an early supporter. Each admits to that having turned out badly.

The difference is Grace's part of this reads like actual introspection. 
Sure, Katrina changed everything, from his political base to the gravity of the problems he was tasked to solve. But some patterns that emerged later, culminating in accusations that he accepted bribes from several former city contractors-turned-government witnesses, were apparent from the beginning.

He did things his own way, played by his own rules, in ways that jibed with his early image as a businessman out to make government more nimble, efficient and responsive. When he trampled the turf of the seven elected assessors and released their data in searchable form, for instance, Nagin revealed just how unfairly the tax burden was distributed. Many observers, myself included, cheered him on.

But Nagin also ignored convention in far less productive ways. His administration deleted emails that it was legally required to retain, even though his own city attorney had written a memo outlining the state mandate to preserve records for three years. When pressed, Nagin just shrugged off criticism.
 Whereas Clancy, after all this time, still writes about Nagin with the scorn of a betrayed lover.
For all his talk of “changing the paradigm” at City Hall, former Mayor Ray Nagin’s arc from telegenic reformer to accused crook followed an all-too-familiar plot line: He started out full of ideals and good intentions, and then, step by step, one small seduction and compromise at a time, proceeded down his personal road to perdition.

To be sure, some politicians are corrupt when they get in the game. But the more common story line is one of a starry-eyed guy who runs for office to make a difference — a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington tale, if you will, that somehow morphs into Mr. Smith Goes to Jail.
See the man Clancy once held up for his readers as a righteous exemplar of paradigm changing civic reform was gradually seduced away from the light and into something that made Gambit look silly in retrospect.  Clancy isn't saying he was wrong to back Nagin. He's saying Nagin just let him down.

Grace, meanwhile,  is writing about a key characteristic of Nagin's; his iconoclastic personality; which she admits she originally saw as a strength but in reality turned out to be a weakness.
Any creatively can-do instincts Nagin had left, the indictment basically confirms, he put toward setting up himself and his family for life after City Hall. In many ways, he was still the same old Nagin we met back in 2002, the defiant guy who just wasn’t going to be bound by the rules that other people followed. To an older and wiser city, there was nothing funny or charming about it.
I don't always agree with Grace but I do miss her level-headed fact-based politics column in the T-P (especially in comparison to James Varney's cartoon page which has replaced it).  Of the two writers in this piece she's the one less likely to make a similar mistake in the future.

Still, I'm not sure either of them gets the lesson that those of us who didn't buy into Nagin in the first place understood at the time. Ray Nagin was a con man. And, as we've learned over the course of the indictments, he wasn't even a very sophisticated con man.  Sure, he possessed a certain glib charm that even now we all miss a little. These are qualities common to most grifters.  But Nagin's talent, wasn't really so dazzling. Instead, his con was enabled by a buy-in from the local press and other powerbrokers (but mostly the press) based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what elections are for in the first place.

It's a misunderstanding common to the political press although various press persons come to it for a number of reasons.  Some get there out of laziness, some out of an over-inflated concern for appearing impartial, and a certain number get there out of sheer dishonesty.  But whatever the reason, it's the most risk-averse way to write about politics and so becomes the consensus approach.

Every look back at Nagin's early "rock star" days begins and ends with his promise to make city government run more efficiently. Of course everyone wants a government that fulfills its purpose "efficiently" but that isn't the problem elections exist to solve.  Elections, rather, determine what those purposes will be and on whose behalf they will be executed.  Seeing to it that those purposes are executed efficiently and professionally is largely a non-political issue. Or, at least, we try to keep it that way.  It's one reason why we have a Civil Service system that insulates career public servants from political pressures. (Incidentally, our current Mayor is planning to gut this system in the name of "efficiency.")

Simply put Ray Nagin taken at face value was a hollow man. But, by-and-large, Ray Nagin at face value was all that voters were presented with in 2002. The so-called paradigm changing, "outsider"; The reforming efficiency expert promising to "run government like a business"  was essentially asking voters to buy into a politics devoid of any purpose. An election whose theme is "efficient government" is an election that isn't really about anything.  Or it's about something other than what's being presented on the editorial pages. If you want to know "Where it all went wrong" with regard to Ray Nagin, I suggest you look there first.



Todd Price said...

Very astute. And I think you also explain why Landrieu lost to Nagin. I don't recall Landrieu putting forward many ideas. He simply promised to execute better than Nagin, and that's not compelling enough to win over voters.

I think there's a deeper issue with the press' focus on efficiency over policy. During elections, politicians are making clear decisions about "on whose behalf government will operate." But these are smaller, less grand gestures, made to specific constituencies. By letting the search for efficiency guide their coverage, too many pundits fail to look for who was promised what. Consequently, as voters we remain uniformed. And then later, when these promises to specific constituencies blow up into larger problems, as they so often do, everyone acts surprised.

Another issue is that many pundits are obsessed with politics and bored with policy and governing. I think Clancy is a prime example of this on the local level. Maybe like a team with both defensive players and offensive players, we need two corps of pundits: election cycle and non-election cycle pundits. We can have them rotate in and out as needed.

jeffrey said...

I think there's something in the structure of the news business that demands a kind of paint by numbers approach to politics. And it often gets even very smart people to write very poor descriptions of what's happening. But, Clancy, I think is more often than not doing it on purpose.