A COVID Lesson: No One Rules Absolutely
This week is the 75th anniversary of VE day, a celebration of the date, May 8, on which the peace treaties were finalized and World War II ended in Europe. The battles in the Pacific still raged, but for the moment there was joy on the Atlantic side of the world. There were many heroes that day. Prominent among them was Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minster who rallied the morale of his people. In the early years of the war Great Britain, under Churchill, pretty much fought alone against the Nazi juggernaut, which had quickly conquered most of mainland Europe.
Churchill was skilled as a military strategist, a diplomat and a speaker, all three of which helped guide the victorious Allies coalition.
On this day in May, seven and a half decades ago, Churchill was a national hero. Nevertheless, two months later in July 1945, Churchill and his Conservative Party were defeated, by a landslide, in a general election. In the sometimes quirky ways in which governance works, the world’s best known prime minister was no longer in office.
Why did a man who had wielded so much power get defeated? To the public, Churchill was about the war; but the voters were worried instead about getting their lives back on track. Starving for economic growth, they were more concerned about banks than tanks.
In 1990, President George Bush, the elder, achieved a popularity rating that hovered around 90 percent after successfully building an international coalition that swiftly kicked Saddam Hussein’s invading Iraqi forces out of Kuwait, the neighboring oil rich country. For the moment, he was the most powerful person in the world, but when it came time to face re-election in 1992, he was defeated by the governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton.
A sign in Clinton’s campaign headquarters said it all, “It is the Economy Stupid.” No stealth bomber could overcome the falling stock market.
I do not mean to equate current local politics with Churchill or the Middle-Eastern war, but what comes to mind is the coverage in The Times Picayune/New Orleans Advocate about tension between Stephen Perry, the CEO of New Orleans and Company, the city’s tourism promotion organization, and New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell. As reported by journalist Bryn Stole, Perry was critical of her cancelling events without notice. Doing so undermined efforts by his office to attract conventions to this city, which depends heavily on the tourist dollar. The criticism was similar to a public letter issued by Todd Murphy, the President of the Jefferson Parish Chamber, after the mayor’s office abruptly canceled fall festivals, including the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival that was looking to move the spring festival to the fall. A group of area business leaders also bought a full page ad in the newspaper complaining about the lack of communication.
There was more anger last week when, under the governor’s guidelines, restaurants around the state were allowed to provide on-premises outdoor food service, but Cantrell quickly rejected that for New Orleans. (On May 5, Cinco de Mayo, El Paso Restaurant in Metairie had a busy day serving food beneath a tent top that shaded properly spaced dining tables. Meanwhile back in the city, at El Gato Negro restaurant on Harrison Avenue, the police arrived to tell customers, already deprived of a dining area, to create more social distancing.)
Interviewed by the newspaper, Perry accused the mayor of a “demagogue approach” and of moving too slowly at allowing re-openings as well as being too restrictive with the rules. Cantrell referred to Perry as being “unprofessional, adversarial and counter-productive.”
All of this is pretty disheartening because in an internationally beloved city that relies so much on tourism, while facing a crisis, the mayor and the tourism industry should be the best of friends.
Several years ago, I was at a meeting of business leaders when the discussion turned to the then current mayor who, consensus had it, seemed pretty disheartened about the condition of the city and the lack of business support. The suggestion was made that some at the meeting should make contact and try to encourage the mayor. That was nice, but it occurred to me that it should be the other way around. If the mayor is the leader of the city, he is the one that should be offering the encouragement. (Pause to imagine Churchill flashing his V for Victory sign or Franklin Roosevelt reminding the nation that it had “nothing to fear but fear itself.”) History’s successful leaders built coalitions rather than working around them.
Power can become elusive. Napoleon, after whose ego the term “Napoleonic Complex” was coined, finished his career in exile. Saddam Hussein’s iron- fisted rule of Iraq ended with his being found hiding in a hole.
We understand that in the COVID-19 debates the underlying issue is saving lives versus rescuing the economy. Sometimes you cannot separate the two. For the newly unemployed workforce to be left poor and powerless is its own form of disease.
Meanwhile our own private world war continues. Where do we stand? To quote Churchill: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available at local bookstores and at book websites.
WATCH INFORMED SOURCES, FRIDAYS AT 7 P.M., REPEATED AT 9:30 A.M. SUNDAYS.WYES-TV, CH. 12.