This being the week for electing a new president, here is my list of the Top Ten Presidents who have had the most impact on New Orleans. For the sake of drama I present them in ascending order from ten to one – so no peeking.
HONORABLE MENTION. Andrew Jackson. 1829-1837. "Ole Hickory" makes the list because no president is as closely identified with the city as he is. Jackson’s 1815 victory at the Battle of New Orleans was to his career what Normandy would be to Eisenhower. He was the only president to whom New Orleans is an important part of his life story. Hey, the city even named an avenue, the town square and a beer after him.
10. Dwight D. Eisenhower. 1953-1961. Inspired by Germany’s autobahn, Eisenhower wanted a series of fast-moving highways for this nation. One of the earliest, and most used, would be Interstate-10. New Orleans, built on a river that ran north-south, would survive into the age of the freight truck because of a concrete river moving east-west. Eisenhower’s choice of historian Stephen Ambrose to be his biographer would have a big impact on this city, especially when Ambrose parleyed Ike’s comments about Andrew Higgins winning the war into an excuse to building the National D-Day museum and making the city a center for war research.
9. John F. Kennedy. 1961-’63. Though his presidency was tragically short, Kennedy did have an impact on the city’s politics by appointing then mayor deLessepps Morrison to be ambassador of the Organization of American States. The selection would open the playing field at City Hall. Kennedy’s commitment to the space program was good for Michoud and his brother’s contempt for the mafia resulted in local boss Carlos Marcello being briefly deported. A whole generation of war-baby New Orleanians saw their first president the day JFK rode down St. Charles Avenue to dedicate the Nashville wharf.
8. Rutherford B. Hayes. 1877- ’81. Not the first name that usually comes to mind when speaking of presidents, but Hayes is remembered locally for one thing. He ended Reconstruction. Granted his commitment to withdraw troops from Louisiana was partially due to deal-making in a contested election that was so drawn out legally as to make George W. Bush’s 2000 victory look like a landslide. But Hayes’ heart was good. He did promise protection for Southern blacks and he did hope to restore peaceful self-government. The transition wasn’t as smooth as he had wanted, but under a different president it could have been worse.
7. Teddy Roosevelt. 1901- ’09. Imagine being able to take a steamer from the port of New Orleans to the Pacific without having to go around the tip of South America. That new canal in Panama made possible by Roosevelt’s gunboat diplomacy would truly make New Orleans an international port.
6. Herbert Hoover. 1929- ’33. His administration would be tarnished by the Great Depression, but Hoover was a compassionate man who, as Secretary of Commerce under Calvin Coolidge, headed the federal government’s relief efforts after the Flood of 1927. Few people in Washington knew the impact of the flood as well as Hoover. During his presidency the efforts began to build spillways and flood systems that protect river cites and that, most often, keep New Orleans dry.
5. Lyndon B. Johnson. 1963- ’69. Finishing the work that John Kennedy started, though with more legislative clout, Johnson pushed through both the civil rights bill and the voting rights act. The latter would make black voters a serious force in every local election to follow. The former, beyond the social decency, in effect liberated the New Orleans business community. Passage of the bill opened the way for national companies, particularly hotel chains and even big league sports to enter markets previously avoided because of integration. Housing patterns would change; tensions would rise; white flight intensified, but New Orleans, and other Southern cites, were on the way to joining the mainstream of American life.
4. George W. Bush. 2001-’09. Sitting presidents always carry emotional baggage. Because he is a sitting president it is also more difficult to rank him. One thing is for sure though, like him or hate him, George W. Bush will have been a major force in the city’s future. The president got off to a shaky start. His supportive statement to FEMA chairman Michael Brown, "you’re doing a heckuva job Brownie," will become one of those presidential lines that will long be teased. Nevertheless, by all accounts, the multi-billion-dollar relief package approved by Congress was because of Bush’s effort, even as forces in Texas and Mississippi wanted a bigger cut. Since Katrina, New Orleans has been a city under federal care and its future will be shaped largely by federal largesse and policy. Few administrations will have had so much of an impact on a city’s future.
3. Abraham Lincoln. 1861- ’65. Had he not held the union together New Orleans might have forever drifted as the provincial capital of various weak political nation/ states. Under a less compassionate president, federal occupation might have been much worse.
2. Franklin Roosevelt. 1933- ’45. Pulling the nation out of the Depression, FDR’s Work’s Progress Administration provided for bridges, buildings, art and even the remaking of the Lake Pontchartrain shoreline. Politically, Roosevelt’s administration served as a counterbalance to the excesses of the Huey Long era machine. Louisiana also had its impact on FDR. His welfare state was formed partially as a response to the growing popularity of Long’s populism.
1. Thomas Jefferson. 1801- ’09. Because of the Louisiana Purchase, New Orleans, formerly French and Spanish, became an American city. There could be no more flattering statement about the city’s importance than that penned by Jefferson to Robert Livingston: "There is on the globe one spot, the possessor of which, is our natural and habitual enemy. It is New Orleans, through which the produce of 3/8 of our territory must pass to market, and from its fertility it will ere long yield more than 1/2 of our whole produce and contain more than half our inhabitants."
Jefferson knew best. To be partisan about New Orleans is not just being parochial, it is thinking globally.
Let us know what you think. Any comments about this article? Write firstname.lastname@example.org. For the subject line use PRESIDENTS. All responses are subject to being published, as edited, in this newsletter. Please include your name and location.
ERROL LABORDE’S BOOK, KREWE: THE EARLY NEW ORLEANS CARNIVAL- COMUS TO ZULU
Books are now available at most area book stores and can also be ordered via e-mail email@example.com or (504) 895-2266.
WATCH INFORMED SOURCES, FRIDAYS AT 7PM, REPEATED AT 11:30 PM.WYES-TV, CH. 12.
NOW ON WIST RADIO, 690 AM, THE ERROL LABORDE SHOW, 8PM FRIDAYS; 7AM and 4PM SATURDAYS; 2PM and 8PM SUNDAYS.