The priority now should be helping the victims and then figuring out how much of New Orleans' magic can be saved. But two things are certain: George W. is up to his Tony Lamas in toxic sludge, and the federal government's failures are testaments to incompetence and failed ideology—just as they are in Iraq.
There was a place somewhere on the river side of St. Charles Avenue near the levee, out there in unmapped neighborhoods between the Garden District and Audubon Park. We'd had dinner at Brigtsen's, smothered rabbit Cajun style with lots of wine, and in a state of heightened irresponsibility—often attainable in New Orleans—we got in a car with three strangers we met at the restaurant. A little club we had to see, they told us, one we'd never find on our own. It was halfway down a block of modest Caribbean cottages, in a house like all the others until you got close enough to hear the music.
An emaciated, intense, cafe-au-lait-colored man was playing the blues on a bagpipe. Playing them like no one in Scotland or Ireland has ever imagined. Playing them like nothing I've ever heard, before or since. You didn't have to be a Celt to appreciate him, but I am. You didn't have to be one who particularly honors blues and pipes on his personal soundtrack, but I do. If you're lucky, there are a few times in your life when a musician will sound a note that you alone were meant to hear.
This mysterious place had no name that I could see. Like many clubs in the Crescent City and very few elsewhere, it served a clientele so chromatically and ethnically diverse that we were surprised to hear the English language emerging from a murmur of city dialect and island patois. It looked like one of those we-are-the-world posters celebrating the United Nations—only everyone here was cool. Possibly they were all mesmerized by the bagpiper, too. But possibly I was the only one who woke up in the morning thinking, "Was that for real?" I knew I didn't dream it, because there was a coaster in my pocket advertising some kind of voodoo beer they don't sell at Brigtsen's. That turned out to be my only clue, a useless one. This ends like a ghost story. Two days later I tried to go back there in a cab, two months later in a rental car with a local guide, a year later on foot with three natives. I found no trace of it, ever—no club, no bagpiper, no porch decorated carelessly with wooden carvings and African masks.
I guess I'll never find it now. Eloquent eulogies for New Orleans, edged with myth and full of memories as arcane and indelible as this one, have been circulating everywhere since Katrina split the levee and drowned the only city in the United States where magic still seemed feasible. Some of the writers are friends of mine, some of their memories I share—the whispers of courtyard fountains in the Quarter, a saxophone solo at dawn in Jackson Square, the Nevilles ablaze at Snug Harbor, drinking brandy on a Pirate's Alley balcony and watching Creole ladies in evening gowns glide among tall candles and bishops' tombstones in the cemetery behind St. Louis Cathedral. Obituaries for this ancient, long-suffering city may be premature, but the bedside vigil for New Orleans feels like the dread uncertainty when someone you love suffers a serious stroke. You don't know what will be left, what essentials will be missing, whether the changes you find will be unbearable.
We go back 40 years, the city and I, beginning in the '60s with an escape from reality—represented by the Unholy Trinity of marriage, Selective Service and gainful employment—that lasted seven mad and merry months. I've returned nearly every year, as often as I could, seizing every excuse: Mardi Gras, of course; a convocation of the Democratic Leadership Council where I met and instantly recognized the phenomenon that was Gov. Bill Clinton, the first charismatic Democrat since the Kennedys; the 1988 Republican Convention, the worst mismatch of natives and visiting delegates in American political history; a shameful weekend of gluttony and bliss hosted by Julia Child and the American Institute of Wine and Food; the William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams literary festivals; and most of my significant wedding anniversaries.
A new book I've published explores, in large part, what the assimilated New South is losing and how much of it we'll miss. After Katrina's awful work was done, someone asked me if I wished I could add one more chapter. I answered truthfully that I'd give anything to get New Orleans in there, to salute her stricken as I saluted her in the midst of life. A friend asked me what I loved about the city and I hesitated for a moment. It was more than food and music. A lot of us are what everyone used to call "uptight," what the doctor calls repressed. For many people, like the Republican delegates who huddled together in the middle of Bourbon Street in 1988 as if not only moral but bacterial contagion might be flowing through the open doors of those strip joints, the condition is incurable. But the rest of us, the lucky ones who can find relief for our repression, keep going back to New Orleans. I loved the city because I was an improbable presence there.
Not everyone is as sentimental about the town the media love to call The Big Easy (locals are divided about the nickname's legitimacy). A friend with a longer city history than mine calls her "an old whore gone bad in the teeth." Bourbon Street can be hard and nasty, Mardi Gras attracts every unsavory lowlife in a thousand-mile radius; the poverty in many neighborhoods approaches Third World hopelessness. This is the town where even the most cautious tourist may have made his first acquaintance with the handgun as a bargaining chip in a painful transaction. Yet most of the natives who could afford to be kind to strangers—and many who couldn't—were preternaturally kind, so inclusive and permissive that the stranger felt as if he'd been living his everyday life in a straitjacket. Ordinary expectations, Southern or American, were suspended below Lake Pontchartrain. "In a real sense adrift not only from the South but from the rest of Louisiana," Walker Percy writes of New Orleans, "somewhat like Mont Saint-Michel awash at high tide."
"Awash at high tide" turned out to be an ominous piece of prophecy, a cruel irony that Percy mercifully never lived to witness. These comparisons to Troy, Nineveh, Pompeii, and lost Atlantis are rhetorically overcooked, of course. Something will remain; much will remain, even though these defiant promises to rebound stronger than ever are pro forma. If Toledo, Ohio, were smashed flat as a road possum by a meteor, and nothing survived except a stray dog, a crippled newsboy and the president of the Chamber of Commerce, we all know the first news camera on the scene would record the president's solemn vow that "Toledo will rise again."
The urgent needs of victims and refugees, the grief and trauma suffered by a million citizens are the first concern. Rebuilding and reimagining New Orleans is a lower priority. The irreparable loss of aura, the psychological injury to millions of sensual pilgrims whose Mecca could never be fully restored, those are losses for pundits and poets to consider. Distributing blame ought to be the last and least of our concerns, while the poisoned waters are still receding.
Yet "the blame game," as the Bush spin machine calls it dismissively, may be the only game that promises anything of substance to compensate for all that was lost. Though our constitution makes no provision for a parliamentary vote of no-confidence to rid us of the most ineffectual, dishonest and disastrous administration ever re-elected, a beleaguered America is finally sending its own message of no-confidence to the White House. On Sept. 14, a day when suicide bombers slaughtered a record 158 civilians in Baghdad—another 500 were wounded, leaving Iraq's capital literally awash in a high tide of blood—the president's post-hurricane approval rating nosedived to 40 percent. And historically—in the absence of Karl "No Apologies" Rove, home recovering from kidney stones and accusations of treason—President Bush even offered what sounded (stop the presses) like his very first apology since taking office. After years of stonewalling as Iraq hemorrhaged, "I take responsibility" was a meltdown, an epic reversal.
Make no mistake about this: If FDR had been president and Gen. Douglas MacArthur had been director of FEMA, the levees would still have fractured, the city would still have flooded and hundreds of helpless people would still have drowned. Louisiana, at city, state and parish levels, is legendary for corrupt and inefficient government. Cajun folklore credits ex-Gov. Edwin Edwards, an irrepressible old pirate now doing federal time in Fort Worth, with liberating tens of millions of innocent dollars from their lawful owners. Federal agencies were convinced that the lion's share of any revenue they earmarked for Louisiana's infrastructure would end its journey at Edwards' desk. U.S. auditors claim that $228 million in recent federal disaster relief became a colossal cookie jar for Louisiana's emergency officials, paying for luxury automobiles and foreign travel, and that out of $15.4 million assigned to the state's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency for relief and recovery projects, proper records account for only half a million.
A handful of cretins like Pat Robertson subscribe to theodicy—natural disasters as punishment for our sins. If that's your game, they were sins of venality, not venery, that sealed New Orleans' fate. Sticky fingers don't plug the hole in the dike, or the levee. But when the searchlight of blame fell in its turn on the federal government, it revealed the same murky gumbo of callousness, incompetence and reliable obliviousness that defeats the Bush administration at every turn. To no one's surprise, FEMA turned out to be staffed by inexperienced political cronies—such gutted, de-prioritized agencies are known as "turkey farms" in D.C. (the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and even the Treasury Department have been subjected to similar "poultrification")—and directed by a hapless man with a deceitful resume who roomed with the president's campaign manager in college, and graduated to emergency management from an unsuccessful turn managing horse shows.
To everyone's surprise, this perfect scapegoat, Michael Brown, declined to skulk off and nurse his kidney stones when the president dismissed him. He turned up on the front page complaining that the White House and his own boss Michael Chertoff, secretary of homeland security, had failed to respond to "a blur" of anguished phone calls when Brown realized that the situation in New Orleans was metastasizing. Brown's outburst was a train wreck for White House spin merchants and underscored the absence of Rove the Enforcer, who would have threatened to kill him.
George W. is up to the top of his Tony Lamas in toxic sludge. For the time being there's no smirk on that insufferable but unsuffering face. Still we're stuck with him until 2009, unless Republicans lose both houses of Congress and Democrats find the guts to impeach him, both highly unlikely. America's best chance to benefit from the catastrophe in New Orleans is to focus all this agony and indignation on a popular philosophy of government called "starve the beast," one endorsed by President Bush and most of the rightwing zealots who sneaked into power five years ago. "The Beast" is your federal government, of course, the entity that collects your taxes and chooses wars for your children. To starve it means to drain it of revenue—something Bush with his tax cuts and Arab wars has done in spectacular fashion—until it can honestly say "no" to "Buddy, can you spare a dime?" For reactionary true believers, no government is the best government and all bureaucracy is pernicious.
Hurricane Katrina showed us what can happen when "starve the beast" is actually put into practice. When the federal government had a chance to justify itself, the Beast was too hungry to walk upright—starved not only for money but for talent, experience, leadership and everything that's critical when the levees are crumbling and people are dying.
The U.S. government, like all governments, has failed desperate people before and will fail them again. But this failure occurred against the backdrop of a bloody, frustrating war that was launched by falsehoods and promises nothing besides more falsehoods, more bloodshed, more frustration and staggering expenditures that may starve the poor beast to death. New Orleans knows that in its hour of need, some third of the state's National Guardsmen and half their vehicles were in Iraq. This fateful collision of natural and unnatural disasters served to clarify what Piers Aubrey, the mercurial Irish journalist in Rebecca West's The Fountain Overflows, identified as "the fundamental problem of politics ... what the state might ask of the individual, what the individual might ask of the state."
Even apolitical, ideology-shunning Americans have begun to connect the breach in the levees with a breach of the social contract, society's basic agreement binding the governed and their governors. When government is a one-way street—when it requires your children and your money for its wars but offers you nothing in return, when it's no more than a giant leech bleeding you white—there's no longer any reason to vote or to pay your taxes. If the federal government's only legitimate function is military, why not save your tax money and form militias? You and your neighbors could do a better job of choosing enemies and defeating them than the clowns now floundering in Washington, D.C. That would be my version of starving the beast.
When enough Americans see that the social contract has been broken, will they turn against Bush and a Republican Congress that was scheming, even while New Orleans drowned, to cut $13 billion from the Medicaid and food stamp programs? Last weekend I watched New Orleans suffer on CNN and took a break for a cocktail party honoring a friend of mine in an ultra-exclusive, gated community the size of Fort Bragg. It was a sprawling golfer's Neverland of lush fairways—drought prevails in North Carolina—and not McMansions but McXanadus, McVersailles, plutocrats' palaces that could lodge most of the Gulf Coast refugees without crowding. People who live there can't imagine themselves in trouble or in need, can't conceive that the beast they're starving might ever have to come to their rescue. All they require of the president they created and control is deeper tax cuts. The distance between these castles and those Americans hip deep in toxic floodwaters, weeping and clutching their bedraggled cats and dogs, is greater than the distance between Earth and Alpha Centauri. Is government of the gated community, by the gated community and for the gated community good enough for the United States of America?