New Orleans

The recent headlines in the Times-Picayune have been grim: “N.O. Is Murder Capital for 2006,” “Insurers Bilked Flood Program,” “Details Murky on How to Get Evacuees Home,” “Louisiana National Guard Has All the Troops It Needs for Hurricane Season, But Many of Its High-Water Trucks Remain in Iraq,” “It’s Hurricane Season: Six Months of Bracing for the Worst While Hoping for the Best.” Things have been that way for almost two years, so Tuesday’s headline, “Jefferson Indicted in Bribery Scheme,” didn’t hit home with the thud that it might have elsewhere.

Down here, outside the “Green Zone,” we are almost numb to news of societal decay, governmental incompetence and political corruption. But in the rest of the country, the news of veteran Democratic Representative William Jefferson’s indictment on sixteen counts of money laundering, racketeering and other crimes as part of an alleged seven-year bribery scheme in which he and his family bilked the developing world for hundreds of thousands of dollars, should be a call to action, the final straw. The very possibility of a government that serves the common good is at stake.

Here in New Orleans we have been disabused of such a utopian relationship between the state and its citizens. Our former populist governor, Edwin Edwards, is growing old in a federal prison. Nearly everyone in former Mayor Marc Morial’s inner circle has been indicted or is under investigation for self-dealing or kickbacks in contracts for the city’s meager public services.

Many of our elected judges sit in the same orange prison jumpsuits as the inmates they harshly sentenced. Millions of dollars from our struggling public schools disappeared annually, without a trace, before the state took over. Though there are astounding public needs in this devastated city, there is no public trust, nor hardly any real expectation of civic entitlements. Perhaps this is the reason that, following Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans did not get a New Deal or a Marshall Plan but a “recovery” based on the Republican Party’s fundamental distrust of government and inclination toward market-based solutions.

As President Bush explained in his solemn evening speech before New Orleans’s backlit St. Louis Cathedral, when most of the city was still in darkness, “It is entrepreneurship that creates jobs and opportunity; it is entrepreneurship that helps break the cycle of poverty; and we will take the side of entrepreneurs as they lead the economic revival of the Gulf region.” And, clearly, with headlines like “A Troubling Bayou Tradition: Louisiana’s History of Corruption Bodes Ill for the Relief Money Headed Its Way” appearing in publications across the country, the post-Katrina recovery effort was not an ideal place to begin a discussion of first principles about whether government or the private sector should take the lead in redeveloping this wasteland. Too much corruption for too long among the most populist leaders here had answered the question in practical terms in a manner that rendered the theoretical question moot.

The national Democratic Party now has a greater say in such matters due to its ascendancy in the last election, a success driven, at least in part, by its portrayal of Republicans as corrupt and beholden to special interests. The refrain that we are clean and they are dirty, however, missed the more important point: Government corruption feeds conservative ideology while betraying the possibility of liberalism and the common good. This is to say that while Duke Cunningham‘s corruption may have been bad for his political future and the Republicans’ midterm election prospects, it was not inconsistent with their ideology, one that distrusts government.

On the other hand, if there is to be any difference at all between the parties, the Democrats must encourage the public to trust government to improve the lives of its citizens. So whether it’s a Republican or a Democrat who abuses the authority of government for his own betterment, the act vindicates the conservative credo. Democrats must be militantly anticorruption because such corruption betrays not only their election prospects but also their values. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the twentieth century’s greatest champion of the common good, the American President who redefined the relationship and obligations between the state and its people in a manner that left each less alone in the pursuit of happiness, understood this clearly when implementing his New Deal policies. As explained by Paul Krugman in his post-Katrina column, “Not the New Deal,”

The New Deal made almost a fetish out of policing its own programs against potential corruption. In particular, F.D.R. created a powerful “division of progress investigation” to look into complaints of malfeasance in the W.P.A…. This commitment to honest government wasn’t a sign of Roosevelt’s personal virtue; it reflected a political imperative. F.D.R.’s mission in office was to show that government activism works. To maintain that mission’s credibility, he needed to keep his administration’s record clean.

If Congressman Jefferson has any regard for these values, or for the struggling region for which he is now incapable of providing leadership, he should resign. If he does not, Jefferson must be forsaken by his party if it wants to remain consistent with its purported ideals.

I recognize, as a criminal defense attorney, that the indictment against Jefferson does not prove the government’s case beyond a reasonable doubt and that he is entitled to full and complete due process until he is proven guilty. But the judgment of his party on his fitness to serve is not a criminal case, and the appearance of corruption in government is just as dangerous to liberal political values as actual corruption. And boy, oh boy, does this appear to be corruption, with ninety grand in marked bribe money found wrapped in tinfoil like Louisiana red fish in his freezer and multiple cooperating witnesses to corroborate the government’s case for bribery.

Now more than ever, New Orleans needs a Representative in Congress who can zealously and credibly fight for our city. And our country has never been in greater need of leadership that inspires confidence in government, because there are places like New Orleans sprinkled throughout the fifty states that have never been in greater need of a new New Deal.