New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu suffered a slight attack of grandiloquence last week during the City Council debate that ended with a thumbs-down for Confederate statuary.
“I speak for the people,” Landrieu declared during a somewhat heated exchange with Stacy Head, the only council member who didn’t join his rush to depose Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, P.G.T. Beauregard and the Liberty Monument.
Speaking for the people may be part of the mayor’s job on ceremonial occasions, but, when he starts casting himself as some kind of paladin, the suspicion will arise that public office has gone to his head.
Speaking for all the people will never be possible even some of the time so long as they constantly disagree among themselves. If hizzoner espouses the majority view, that is as close as he can get to speaking for the people.
But Landrieu by no means has the majority on his side this time, and it appears that Head was the one speaking for the people at the council hearing. Even as Landrieu was donning the mantle of tribune, a poll showed that most people were against his purge of Lost Cause sculpture.
If the Sons of Confederate Veterans have been praying to St. Jude, his intervention will have to come in federal judge Carl Barbier’s courtroom. A lawsuit filed immediately after the council vote is the only impediment left to the removal of the monuments.
The latest poll, which showed only 34 percent of New Orleans residents in favor of Landrieu’s stance, was not released until after the council vote, but its conclusions were not exactly a revelation. Earlier polls found a majority both statewide and in New Orleans opposed to meddling with the iconic cityscape.
Those findings somewhat belied Landrieu’s claim that black people are grievously affronted every time they catch a glimpse of Lee aloft or pass a mounted Beauregard on the way into City Park. New Orleans is 60 percent black, and still only a minority can be stirred into resentment.
That doesn’t palliate the offense to the minority, however, and it fell to one of New Orleans’ most distinguished musical sons, Wynton Marsalis, to explain to Landrieu how it can feel to be black amid the revered effigies of slavery’s military defenders. In urging their removal, Landrieu could thus claim to be advancing a moral principle, while most people would reject any suggestion he was speaking for them.
The tide of history appears to be in his favor, for over in England a statue of another 19th century proponent of white supremacy, Cecil Rhodes, is on the verge of displacement also. Rhodes, whose statue in Cape Town has already been junked, was a mining magnate and imperialist politician who endowed the famous Oxford scholarships, but his alma mater there, Oriel College, is evidently about to bow to pressure from students who want him made a nonperson.
Statues have been eliciting passionate reactions for a very long time. A statute of Horatio Nelson, for instance, was placed on a column in Dublin in 1809, four years after he died at the Battle of Trafalgar and decades before a slightly taller version went up in London. At the time, the whole of Ireland was part of the United Kingdom, but by 1966, an English admiral was not welcome, and the Irish Republican Army conveyed that message with a bomb.
If Barbier does not block their removal, our Confederates will not be consigned to kingdom come but, Landrieu suggests, re-erected in a park or museum. Meanwhile, speculation shifts to where Landrieu himself will go when his term is up.
We just elected another Democrat as governor, voters are against a charter change that would let Landrieu run for a third term, and he has ruled out the U.S. Senate race, which is no doubt wise. He’d only get tagged as a latter-day carpetbagger.
Maybe Landrieu could hope for a position in a Hillary Clinton administration, as his father, Moon, became HUD Secretary under Jimmy Carter after his mayoral term was up. Otherwise, the people will have to find someone else to speak for them.
James Gill’s email address is email@example.com.