I wasn’t too deep into Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s new book, “In the Shadow of Statues,” before I knew that it’s not aimed at me. Nor is it aimed at you, if you live in New Orleans or elsewhere in Louisiana.
This isn’t a deep dive into Landrieu’s eight years in the mayor's office in general, or even specifically into his hugely controversial decision to seek the removal of four Jim Crow-era monuments that he says he barely thought of until confronted with their symbolic weight by world-famous trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. Nor is it a deeply introspective memoir, although it does have some moving moments, including Landrieu’s late-in-life realization of how isolated an African-American friend from high school felt at the time.
What it is an introduction of sorts — through the lens of the South’s fraught racial history — to people who haven’t watched Landrieu’s long career in public office play out, who don’t know of his childhood in integrated Broadmoor, or of his father Moon’s courageous support for civil rights and integration as a legislator, city council member and mayor, at a time when a white politician taking those stands was met with death threats.
The book’s subtitle, “A White Southerner Confronts History,” could just as well have been “Meet Mitch Landrieu.”
In a recent interview, Landrieu noted that his decision to “call the question” of the monuments’ future came in his final term as mayor, and that not facing a future election allowed him to “govern with freedom.”
But if anyone thought mayor would be Landrieu’s final act, both the book and its reception outside of Louisiana should put that to rest.
He’s scored interviews in just about every major national media outlet. He got an adoring reception at Comedy Central’s left-skewing "The Daily Show." While he says he has no plans to seek the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, he’s been popping up in speculative stories with growing frequency. Politico claimed that no less than former President Barack Obama “has said privately that he could see the appeal of a bald white guy from Louisiana talking up progressive politics in a smooth Southern accent.”
One chapter that can only encourage such talk zeros in on David Duke, the Nazi-sympathizer and former Klan leader who joined the Louisiana Legislature while Landrieu was serving. Landrieu not only recounted his decision at the time to refuse to normalize Duke’s presence, but also draws overt parallels to the nationalism and intolerance that helped fuel President Donald Trump’s rise. He’s far from the first person to make the connection, but this focus can only endear him to Democrats around the country, and perhaps even some Never Trump Republicans. Same goes for Landrieu’s prescription.
“We beat it because we confronted it,” he said in a recent interview.
I’ll be honest here: I’m with Landrieu on the decision to take down the monuments.
He’s right that remembrance and reverence are not the same thing, and that the drive to retain slavery — and an honest examination of history proves that’s what motivated the leaders who were represented, if not many of the soldiers who fought and died — put the Confederacy on the wrong side of history.
And he’s right that the erection of the monuments came at a time when not everyone who lived in New Orleans was allowed to participate in government, and that the messages the monuments sent never truly represented the will of all of New Orleans.
But I would love to read a book that delves more deeply into how he came to believe this after not giving the monuments a thought for so many years. Landrieu writes about the unexpected isolation he felt during the drawn-out debate, but I’d love to read more about the conversations he had, including with business leaders who first hinted at support but then shied away from taking a stand, and with the city contractors who wouldn’t rent him a crane. In interviews, Landrieu tends to peg opponents as from outside New Orleans. But the silence from the people who have stood beside him in presenting the city as otherwise progressive and forward-thinking was genuinely shocking.
I would also love to read about how removing the monuments fits into the bigger picture, about what it was like for Moon Landrieu and his City Council colleagues Eddie Sapir and Philip Ciaccio to pull down the Confederate flag in City Council chambers, and for other mayors and activists who have long had these monuments in their sights.
Maybe if Landrieu doesn’t run for president, he can write a sequel.