COLUMN

Saved by jazz and Creole comedy

Allan Fotheringham August 29 1988
COLUMN

Saved by jazz and Creole comedy

Allan Fotheringham August 29 1988

Saved by jazz and Creole comedy

COLUMN

Allan Fotheringham

What only the water-bound portions of Canada realize is that politics can be abided only when it is fun. The folk in British California, home of Wacky Bennett and Phlying Phili Gaglardi and now Bill Vander Slam, have long recognized that: if you have to put up with the lies and flimflam, you might as well get a little burlesque to go along with it.

Newfoundlanders know that, too, which is why they love the jiggerypokery of Joey Smallwood. Waterbound Nova Scotia is not at all surprised by the antics of Billy Joe MacLean—and predecessors and those rascals yet to come. New Brunswick delighted for years in the showmanship of Richard Hatfield, the Marco Polo of the Maritimes. It is the inland provinces, away from the liberating sea, that take politics too much at face value.

So it is that New Orleans, wicked witch of a city, held in the bosom of the Mississippi, is such a delightful locale for such a mind-numbing operation as a Republican party presidential convention. The GOP is composed of rich stiffs with a poker up the yingyang, and it needs something as seedy and decadent as this 300-year-old port city to shake it back to life.

What can you say about a town that has been described as not so much southern United States but northern Costa Rica? Where the main nod to the Republican visitors was the city decision to dump spice-loaded chemicals into the sewers of the French Quarter in hopes of eradicating the smell of stale beer that wafts aloft in normal times.

The best way to typify New Orleans is to explain that a well-known local television personality had his convention media credentials taken away from him when the security metal detector at the Superdome revealed that he had a revolver in his briefcase. He’d forgotten all about it, explained the personality, since he carried it there all the time. No one in town blinked. What’s a pistol in a briefcase to a state that once boasted the Kingfish, Huey

Long, as governor and his brother Earl, who, while three-time governor, said that when he died he wanted to be buried in Louisiana “so I can remain active in local politics.”

New Orleans, like most Latin cultures, is obsessed with death. Cemeteries are among the top tourist attractions. The French Quarter shops are alive, so to speak, with voodoo artifacts. The Mardi Gras parade characters abound with mask and voodoo apparatus. It’s entirely appropriate that this is the city that presided over the anointing of George Herbert Walker

Bush, the man who once sneered at the “voodoo economics” of Ronald Reagan.

The site fits, also, the death of the convention floor reporter. The only interest, for the viewers at home chewing on the chip dip, used to be the chance of a fistfight down on the arena floor with Sam Donaldson busting in to eavesdrop on what was going on. Since primaries now pick candidates, not conventions, Sam and Lesley Stahl and Diane Sawyer and Bill Plante are wallflowers at the prom. Little wonder that Sam, he of the varnished hair, is leaving the White House beat at his request.

The best sight in the town when the bars are open 24 hours a day in fact is the front stoop of my pad, the Cornstalk Fence Hotel, a block from Bourbon Street, where the early-rising guest is greeted by brilliant-green iguanas skitting across the steps and fat orange goldfish feeding in the fountain. The spoon stands up in the coffee cup. A streetcar named Desire has been

brushed off, repainted and revived. A short stay makes more understandable both Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote, two tortured souls.

The very best thing in town, besting all the political nonsense, takes place every night in the Old Absinthe Bar on Bourbon, where a blind man in a porkpie hat and shades plays the blues on his gigantic electric guitar alongside a lady whose voice has the gravel-pit rasp of Janis Joplin. His name is Bryan Lee, he has a few albums out, and why he isn’t famous beyond all the groingrinding twerps in black leather puzzles all of us who picked Duff Roblin for PM.

He is 45, from dull, old Wisconsin and survived 20 years on the road before he hit Bourbon Street a decade ago and realized—a white man in a city that spawned black jazz—that this was where he was meant to be. “New Orleans,” he says, “is a bit sleazy. Just a little rude, a little crude. But it’s beautiful, because everybody is themselves and nobody cares.”

The obverse of that was demonstrated at a o huge party thrown by £ the local paper, the ungfortunately named Times-Picayune. More crayfish and shrimp and Creole and Cajun dishes than one could contemplate, more bands than one could stand, but what was the longest Republican lineup? Before the blackened fish stand of chef Paul Prudhomme, the defensive lineman of trendy cuisine. Why? Because he was handing out autographs. This crowd didn’t want food, it wanted cookbooks.

It’s why, one supposes, it chose a candidate called George Herbert Walker Bush, who chose as his running mate a chap called J. Danforth Quayle III, a “chicken hawk” on the Vietnam non-War who somehow declined to serve in that quagmire and instead used heavy family connections to get him into the safe home ground of the National Guard.

The Republicans had a lot of fun here. Especially since there were only 2,277 voting delegates among the 60,000 partying Republican visitors. They weren’t up to it. The town was a lot more fun than they were.