I didn’t like the image, I have to admit. New Orleans was burning; why was I going to dance? But since you can’t plan your life around stuff that might be fucked up next week, the show went on, and it turns out it was productive, even in the context of the earth caving in on us.
Because here’s the thing about these people, they’re talkers. And they talk and talk and talk and talk until they hammer something out. And somewhere around 1 a.m., drinking some of FeralLiberal’s homemade wine while sitting on the floor in Mena and Sally and
Flory’s sittenpretty’s hotel room (with Flory and many many others), I realized we’d done nothing for two days but talk about how to make sure this disaster is fixed, and never, ever, ever happens again.
If anybody ever doubted that these are people who love their country, all they had to do was look around, because even after two days of it, even a little drunk and wishing they could turn off the CNN crawl that is our collective brain stem, they could talk about nothing but how to make a better world for their children, children like NY Mary’s lovely little Rosie, whose stumbling walk and curious eyes were like an affirmation of life amidst all this death. And having that conversation in Philadelphia, surrounded by reminders of the birth of our country and the idealism that fueled that revolution only made it more urgent, more real.
So here’s what I hammered out, on the plane home. Here’s what I took from all the people I talked to, about who they voted for and who they loved and admired, who and how they wanted our leaders to be. Here’s what I think needs to happen for this country, this nation, to recover from the shock and shame of abandonment that occurred and is still unfolding on the Gulf Coast.
The reconstruction of New Orleans and the South will be our New Deal. Its rebuilding, repaving, re-designing and securing will be our WPA. Cleaning up the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina from Florida to Mississippi to Alabama to Louisiana will be this nation’s recovery from the Great Depression of the last five war-filled, lie-filled, cynical years of despair and destruction.
Rebuilding the city will be a national effort, accompanied by a call for sacrifice of funds and time and materials from every citizen, from every state. We bear responsibility for taking care of our citizens, and it’s time that we did so. The government has to undertake the project with the same scale and scope as it did in clawing this country out of the Great Depression. Katrina wiped out jobs and homes and lives and futures; Bush let thousands die while he fiddled. We must be the ones to say, you WILL build on this, you WILL fix it, and that will be our mission. That wll be OUR cause, because that is who we are.
They destroy. We create.
All weekend at these congressional strategy talks and other, less formal conversations, people kept talking about leadership, about how the presidents who were truly beloved gave the country a mission to believe in, a shared goal to work toward, and then personally invested themselves in that goal, that mission. They talked about how the Democrats must win back Congress by having a vision, by having a dream people wanted to be a part of. Where’s our Contract With America? Where’s our Great Society?
I think this is it.
I think we run by saying we are going to physically, with our hands and with hammers and nails, put right what went so wrong. I think we start right now, today, by calling for a comprehensive reconstruction program, with deadlines, goals, benchmarks to be met, with a built in Truman Commission to prevent no-bid contracting to companies like Halliburton. I think we start calling for that, as one, with one voice. I think in the face of terror and tragedy we become the people who say, you can overcome this, we will help you, have courage, have hope. Have hope.
And when we win, and we throw the rotten bums who allowed this disaster to unfold out onto the street, I think we drag them down to New Orleans and put them to work rebuilding as well. George, Dick, Condi, Donald, we need a few extra pairs of hands. Pick up that shovel. You’re good at digging deep.
Think of the jobs it would create for people now displaced from their workplaces, which may never reopen. Think of the sense of community that would come from such a huge and magnificent common goal. Think of what it would mean when it was finished: New Orleans as a monument to the American spirit, that we do not give up, we do not back down, we do not take no for an answer. We build up, we break out, we find a way to carve our living with our teeth if we have to, and we do it together.
That’s more than a platform for a set of elections. That’s a dream to live for, a story that tells itself. That’s an idea not in the least as wild and crazy as a bunch of guys sitting in a room, hashing out, amongst themselves, how to create a country. Walking down Market Street this morning with Paida, we looked up at Independence Hall just as the bells in the tower began to ring. And I thought of Martin Luther King’s words, the tremble and rise in his voice as he shouted, “Let freedom ring from every mountaintop, let freedom ring.”
What is freedom, if not the gift we give one another? What is a party without a dream to give its members? What is a country if not a place that, like all homes, when you go there, takes you in?
That’s what I took out of this weekend: a clear sense of where we should go. What we should say. Who we really are. It wasn’t what I expected to come away with. It was better.