Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Don't Look For Magic From Rudy

Chris Matthews--along with others in the MSM, I'm sure--has been salivating over the notion of having Bush appoint Rudy Giuliani to oversee the relief and recovery effort in New Orleans. The idea seems to be that Rudy will bring his magical, inspirational touch to The Big Easy, rallying the grateful citizenry, stimulating a spirit of bipartisan unity, and organizing the work crews with breathtaking competence and efficiency.

I don't think Bush is going to take this route--because giving Rudy this gigantic, very visible assignment would be viewed as tantamount to anointing him as his successor, which I doubt Bush wants to do. But even if Bush did call on Giuliani, I wouldn't expect any of Rudy's supposed 9/11 magic to rub off on Louisiana.

By comparison to the problems facing New Orleans today, those that faced New York after 9/11 were relatively minor. Dubious? Consider:

1. The city government of New York had very few health-related problems to deal with after 9/11. When the towers fell, city hospitals braced for a flood of injury victims. Almost none materialized. Close to 3,000 people were killed, but those who survived were mostly fine. The injuries suffered by survivors were mainly respiratory ailments from airborne debris (which the city has disavowed responsibility for) and routine things like broken legs--nothing like the massive health problems and long-term contamination that are looming in New Orleans today.

2. Many residents and businesses were displaced from lower Manhattan. But the numbers are dwarfed by those in New Orleans. And those made homeless by 9/11 could find refuge elsewhere in a vast metropolitan area that continued to operate on an almost normal basis. Municipal services like water and electricity were uninterrupted (except, of course, in the immediate vicinity of the Twin Towers), and the region's huge transportation system was soon operational again. The scale of the recovery that New Orleans requires is several orders of magnitude greater than in New York.

3. Rebuilding downtown Manhattan is a big job (which Rudy has had very little to do with--remember, he left office just a few months after 9/11 and has been raking in the big bucks in private industry ever since). It is being managed under considerable pressure, since the site is naturally both a political football and an important national symbol--this on top of the usual difficulties in organizing any massive public works project in a complicated, contentious city like New York. But rebuilding after Katrina, again, will be a much, much greater challenge--starting with the fact that any city in the traditional location of New Orleans will require the most gigantic (and costly) water-control system ever constructed in the United States.

So terrible as 9/11 was, the aftermath of Katrina is going to be much, much more difficult to deal with.

After 9/11, what New York needed was a Chief Morale Officer--someone who looked calm, caring, involved, and in control, and who could articulate feelings like anger, grief, and resolve on behalf of the city's people with dignity and strength. Rudy did all this, and it made him a national hero.

I wouldn't denigrate the difficulty or importance of this task of symbolic leadership--the pathetic performance of Bush this week illustrates that it's not as easy as Rudy made it look. But the fact is that the problems of New Orleans require a hell of a lot more sheer managerial talent than Rudy has ever had to exhibit. Remember that, until 9/11, Rudy's reputation as a mayor was very shaky; during his administration, crime in New York had fallen (as it had in many other cities), but the schools and the transit system were struggling, and Rudy had exacerbated racial and social tensions with his frequent high-handedness.

Could Rudy become the savior of New Orleans? Maybe--but I wouldn't give him odds any better than one in four. Which is why I doubt that he will accept the job even if Bush offers it.

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