The Corner

Ray Nagin At Work

Yesterday Vanity Fair released a story on Vice President Dick Cheney from its upcoming edition. What seemed most remarkable about the piece was how little Cheney revealed to writer Todd Purdum. Today, the magazine has released something more interesting, an excerpt from historian (and Tulane professor) Douglas Brinkley’s new book on Hurricane Katrina, The Great Deluge. In the excerpt, Brinkley’s reporting is hard on all government officials, including President Bush, but devastating for New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin.  Some excerpts from the excerpt:

As politicians go, Nagin was a showboater. Just that morning, in fact, the New Orleans Times-Picayune had reported on the mayor’s latest venture: acting. A few days before, he had made his film debut in an indie thriller called Labou. For five hours–in the thick of the tropical-storm season–he had rehearsed and delivered his lines. His role: a corrupt Louisiana mayor. As he left the set he was in a boastful mood, reportedly calling out, “Hollywood South, baby!”

That evening, N.H.C. director Max Mayfield phoned Blanco. He wanted her to know that Katrina was barreling Louisiana’s way and that he was “sorry.” His voice was maudlin and full of trepidation. “Thank you, Max,” she said. “But you need to talk to Ray Nagin.” A frustrated Mayfield said, “I’ve been trying to talk to him, but I can’t reach him.” An exasperated Blanco put Mayfield and Nagin in touch.

Nagin spent the rest of Thursday in the Hyatt. Unable to communicate with the outside world, he munched on peanuts and tuned in to [radio host] Garland Robinette’s program.

Also ensconced in the Hyatt was Nagin’s tireless communications director, Sally Forman (who has recently assisted her husband, Ron, president and C.E.O. of the Audubon Nature Institute, in the 2006 race for mayor, against Nagin and Landrieu). A staunch defender of the mayor’s during the crisis, she insisted her boss wasn’t hiding in the Hyatt; instead, she said, he didn’t want to be seen as grandstanding. “Symbolically the mayor felt that they didn’t need another political person in a rescue boat,” Forman explained in his defense. “The best thing the mayor could do was run the operation on the ground. Politically it was perhaps a mistake.”

[Aides] had been urging Nagin to show his leadership  stripes, abandon the hotel, and get out in the streets. Like President Bush, he seemed above the fray. Even when Nagin had taken a boat trip to various flooded neighborhoods, according to a close aide, he had made sure that his clothes stayed clean. Now, taken aback by the radio callers and fearful that the mayor might be accused of having gone AWOL, Clarkson urged him, “Get on the radio and tell them what happened.”

“I just got furious on the air [that day],” Robinette recalled. “I didn’t care if I had a job or not. I kept saying–to the U.S. government, ‘Where are you? Where the hell are you?’ “In came the calls from as far away as England and Australia. “I’m in one of my rants saying, This is day four! People are dying on the streets! They’re dying on the overpasses! They had no food!’ Just ranting like that, and suddenly on the other line was Sally Forman with Mayor Nagin. And he just started echoing what I’d been saying.”

The way he lashed out was a perfect reflection of the mood of the city on Thursday. In speaking of his contact with President Bush, Nagin said, “I told him we had an incredible crisis here and that his flying over in Air Force One does not do it justice. I’ll tell you, man, I’m probably going [to] get in a whole bunch of trouble [and] you probably won’t even want to deal with me after this interview is over, but we authorized $8 billion to go to Iraq lickety-quick. I don’t know whose problem [Katrina] is. I don’t know whether it’s the governor’s problem. I don’t know whether it’s the president’s problem. But somebody needs to get their ass on a plane and sit down, the two of them, and figure this out right now.”

When Nagin hung up the phone, he broke down crying, according to Clarkson.

Nagin would later admit that it was an emotional moment. He sequestered himself in the bathroom, Clarkson recalled, and wouldn’t come out. For 20 minutes or so both Clarkson and Forman tried to lift his spirits as they heard him tinkering inside, re-arranging knickknacks and toiletries. In the distance they could hear booming explosions and see columns of smoke.

Byron York — Byron York is is the author of The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy.

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