There’s an obvious parallel to New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s first book, a provocative memoir about family, community, and race in America titled In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History, and perhaps in the future, students of political science or mass communication or African-American studies will read Landrieu’s book alongside its older cousin, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, written more than 23 years ago by a candidate for the Illinois state senate named Barack Obama.
“Any similarities are completely unintended,” Landrieu tells me. “Interestingly enough, though, the President struggled with the same conflicts, though they were probably more acute than the ones I had. But he grew up with one foot in both racial worlds. I really hadn’t thought about (the parallels between our books) before now, but I grew up in a mixed neighborhood and, of course, I had a foot in both worlds as well.”
While the biracial Obama spent his childhood years shuffling between his white mother in Indonesia and his white grandparents in Hawaii, with only one brief visit by his Kenyan father and namesake, Landrieu was born and raised in a large, nuclear family steeped in Louisiana politics. His older sister Mary was a three-term U.S. Senator; their father Moon, before he was appointed Secretary of Housing and Urban Development during the Carter administration, was himself a two-term mayor of New Orleans.
After the Recording Academy eliminated the category of Best Zydeco Album and collapsed it into the ambiguously-named Best Regional Roots Album, Louis Michot, the frontman for the Grammy-award winning Cajun French band Lost Bayou Ramblers, found his band competing against Hawaiian musicians for the same top prize. On first glance, it may seem completely absurd, but as Michot once told me, he discovered their music shared many of the same rhythms, messages, and instincts as music made on a faraway island. The comparisons, it turned out, were fair.
On paper and on a map, Barack Obama and Mitch Landrieu don’t appear to have both straddled the same two worlds; they seem to have grown up in entirely different universes. But their stories and insights, particularly about race, identity, and privilege, share a rhythm and an aspirational message about America.
Landrieu’s book, which will debut in The New York Times’ Top Ten List, isn’t nearly as raw or personal as the former president’s, but Barack Obama wrote his first book when he was only 34 years old and before he’d ever held a single political office. Mitch Landrieu, on the other hand, waited until he was 57 years old, after spending 16 years in the state legislature, six as Louisiana’s Lt. Governor, and another eight as mayor.
Because of term limits, Landrieu cannot run for another four years, but even if he could, his pathway to victory would have been more challenging. Not merely because of his controversial decision to remove four public monuments glorifying the “Cult of the Lost Cause.” Many of the critics in his own hometown are folks who largely agree with him on that particular issue but blame him, fairly or not, for a host of other things: The ineptitude of the Sewerage and Water Board, the proliferation of short-term rental units, income inequality, the plague of gun violence, rampant redevelopment, and, of course, the pumps and the potholes.
On Election Day in 2010, Landrieu’s campaign was careful to manage their expectations; he had run for mayor twice before, in 1994 and then in 2006, and had lost both times.
They had hoped that he would narrowly survive the jungle primary against ten opponents; instead, Mitch Landrieu won in seismic fashion, capturing 67% of the vote in a runaway. That night, surrounded by a diverse crowd of hundreds at the recently restored Roosevelt Hotel, Landrieu declared victory.
The very next day, the New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl.
By most objective metrics, Landrieu’s eight years as mayor of the Crescent City have been a resounding success. He inherited a systematically corrupt government that had saddled the city with nearly $100 million in debt and no savings, a government that had squandered countless opportunities for federal and nonprofit grant funding, costing the city at least $200 million, and a government that had tarnished much of the goodwill the city received from all over the world in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; there were at least two major foundations that threatened to pull out of the city altogether unless it quickly got its act together.
Today, New Orleans is resurgent; unemployment is near historic lows; homelessness has been reduced by 80% and effectively eliminated among veterans; the city has asserted itself as a national magnet for entrepreneurship and the creative arts; tourism is booming, and investment is up. The city turned a deficit into a surplus; it now has the highest bond rating in its history. There’s a sprawling new hospital campus; a new airport is under construction.
His predecessor, C. Ray Nagin, is currently an inmate at a federal penitentiary in Oakdale, Louisiana, while Landrieu is serving the final month of his tenure on a personal high note: He’s overseeing the city’s tricentennial anniversary; he’s on a national book tour; he’s the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and people are talking about him like he could be president of the United States.
In the Shadow of Statues, Landrieu often comes across as an earnest, principled, though, as Jarvis DeBerry of The Times-Picayune points out, sometimes frustratingly naive politician.
I first met Mitch Landrieu more than a decade ago when he was the state’s Lt. Governor; I don’t believe he is actually naive, and his memoir only falters in the brief moments where he shifts away from personal narrative into exposition. Landrieu is a gifted writer, but his book, after all, isn’t just a personal memoir; it’s a political document.
Still, this much is unquestionable: Because of his decision to remove four public monuments glorifying the “Cult of the Lost Cause,” Mitch Landrieu will likely never be governor of Louisiana. He knows this. At some point, maybe six years ago, he could have been elected governor, but the timing wasn’t right. Today, there’s no way; the timing is still not right.
“By the time I got to be mayor,” he tells me, “and by the time this monument issue had been raised- remember I had been through Katrina, Rita, Ike, Gustav, the national recession, the BP oil spill, and I’d been either second in command or first in command in all of those emergency responses- I had gotten into a place of figuring out how you do the right thing, no matter what. And I didn’t really count the immediate political consequences. It was the right thing to do historically; it should have been done a long time ago, and I wasn’t really calculating what (political) damage, if any, would be created.”
At the same time, he recognized he could afford to spend his political capital, even if it made him permanently unpopular among most white voters outside of Orleans Parish.
“I remember my daddy telling me a long time ago, ‘What do you think you have political capital for? You’re supposed to spend it.'” he said. “I think history is going to look at this decision as one of the many steps that a lot of people took to get us to a better place.”
There are particularly moving moments in the book, none as much as Landrieu’s riveting and anguishing chapter about Hurricane Katrina.
For a national audience, the book is an introduction to a man that most Louisianians have known for decades, but for readers back home, Landrieu emphasizes what he considers a critical lesson.
“The point that I was trying to make in the book, a point I didn’t have time to make in the speech, was how much worse off we are in the South, in Louisiana for constantly exporting our creative talent, our intellectual capabilities, and our human capital,” he tells me. “That’s a big story. Just imagine if all of those people who were great at what they did were able to stay in Louisiana.”
Landrieu’s tenure as mayor will likely be regarded as the most consequential in modern city history, even by his adversaries.
“I’m not a hero, and I’m not particularly a courageous person,” he said to reporter Michelle Goldberg. “But at some point you have to be willing to lose your job to do the right thing. That’s the only time you really find freedom.”
Four days later, the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation honored Landrieu with one of the nation’s most distinguished awards: He will be this year’s recipient of the Profile in Courage Award; last year, the prize was given to Barack Obama.