Nagin’s Calm After Storm

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New York— Last Wednesday, about 90 minutes after Cox Communications CEO Jim Robbins paid tribute to his “fortitude in a time of crisis” during remarks at the Kaitz Foundation dinner, New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin was on CNN’s Larry King Live, calmly discussing what went wrong over the past couple of weeks in that tormented city.

Nagin, the former Cox cable system general manager in the Crescent City, arrived at the Baton Rouge, La., interview location about 18 minutes late, explaining he’d been meeting with the Louisiana governor after she gave a speech and their conversation ran a little long. Still, there was plenty of time left in the hour to see a different Nagin than the country heard during a much-replayed radio interview, when he blasted the federal government for promising so much and doing so little.

Nagin told King that radio interview was probably the one time he’d gotten a little overly emotional. It came “when I was at my total point of frustration, and I kind of, uh, elevated my voice and said some choice words.” Normally, he tries to avoid getting too high or low.

He maintained that welcomed evenness with King, who to his credit asked some tough questions. After all, as Nagin said, now that the “nuclear crisis” has passed, it’s time for leaders to take responsibility and try to do better. “Because Larry, this should never happen again, ever in this country. At no time should anybody go through what we went through.”

What mistakes had he made? “We could have screamed a little bit earlier, hopefully we could have gotten more people to safety,” he said.

To a caller, who complained that police and firefighters should have had more options during a paid time-off period than just Las Vegas or Atlanta, Nagin said “we tried to do the best we could. In my opinion, it wasn’t good enough, and I take ultimate responsibility for it.”

What about those school buses caught on helicopter cameras, sitting in water instead of evacuating people? Those became impossible to get to, the mayor said, and there weren’t enough drivers anyway.

I asked a Cox official that night what company people thought about how Nagin was doing, and he said it probably wasn’t much different than the general public’s view: some loved him, some thought he was in over his head, in general he was polarizing. But he sure hit one out of the park Wednesday when King asked if he wanted to remain mayor.

“I think I do,” he said. “Because this is a once in a 200-year span of history that we have an opportunity to rebuild one of the greatest cities in the country. And I just can’t wait for the rhythm of New Orleans and the sounds of New Orleans to come back. Right now, the sounds [are] of helicopters and, you know, soldiers marching. Where New Orleans has this sweet sound about it, where it’s jazz, and it’s people cooking red beans and rice and gumbo, there’s beignets, there’s walking in St. Louis Cathedral and the park. And that’s what I want to see come back in earnest.”

Amen to that.

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