The CNBC series “American Greed” devoted an entire hour of television Thursday night to the spectacular rise and epic fall of former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin.
And if I hadn’t lived through the whole thing, if I hadn’t witnessed the immense hope his election set off followed by the deep despair over his administration’s performance, I would have turned it off.
Try as the producers did to pump up the drama with searing images of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, video of the ex-mayor shoulder to shoulder with President George W. Bush, and brief reenactments of strippers partying on the yacht that Nagin’s tech chief and pal Greg Meffert used as part of his own kickback scheme — parties that Nagin himself did not attend — the underlying story came off pretty much the way it did during the 2014 trial that resulted in his conviction. It was entirely pedestrian.
The Ray Nagin portrayed in the television show was no brilliant criminal mastermind. He was a guy who got in over his head when it came to governance; who never stopped resenting the pay cut he voluntarily took when he traded his cushy job at Cox Communications for public service; who was utterly overwhelmed by the hurricane’s destruction, yet who felt the need to run for reelection rather than walk away and let someone else pick up the mantle. And when opportunities presented themselves to seek favors from those who were seeking favor from him, he was a guy who took them, apparently without giving any thought to the ethical consequences.
The fact is that Nagin wasn’t the type to sit down and scheme. He was more someone who followed the path of least resistance, and who rationalized his sense of entitlement.
It’s a sad tale, for Nagin and much more so for his constituents. But the show’s effort to cast it in Shakespearian terms came up short, largely because of the material it had to work with. The circumstances surrounding the Nagin story were indeed dramatic, and carried huge stakes. The man at the center of it all, though, came off in the show as he did in real life. In the end, he was little more than a small-time crook.
‘Grace notes’ is a daily feature by Advocate columnist Stephanie Grace. To read more of her content, including her full columns, click here.