New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu has seen this movie before. Alienated people who feel left behind by their leaders elect a demagogue whose dog-whistle politics feed their basest instincts.
The year was 1989. Bill Clinton was governor of Arkansas, and a progressive “New South” movement was on the rise. And yet a white supremacist was elected to the Louisiana House of Representatives — former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard and current outspoken Trump supporter David Duke. Landrieu, who served as a Louisiana state representative from 1988 to 2004, calls Duke’s time in office “a dress rehearsal to the rise of Donald Trump.”
On this week’s episode of The Ezra Klein Show, Landrieu explains how to deal with politicians like Duke and Trump who spout coded racist rhetoric. He also discusses such wide-ranging topics as criminal justice, immigration, and gun reform, how he came to self-identify as a “radical centrist,” and why politicians need to lean into the discomfort of the current political and social climate. If these sound like topics for stump speeches to you, you’re not alone — Landrieu is frequently brought up as a potential 2020 candidate.
The books Landrieu recommends at the end of the podcast reflect the racial and historical reckoning he’s experienced as a white leader of a diverse Southern city. The mayor’s removal of New Orleans’s Confederate landmarks pushed him into the national media spotlight last year after a speech defending the move, in which he called the monuments a form of terrorism, went viral. He credits his conversations with black friends and constituents, specifically jazz musician Wynton Marsalis, with helping him recognize the psychological harm that Confederate monuments cause to individuals and communities. That decision, and the aftermath, is detailed in his new book, In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s dreams for the future are laid out in his last book and Landrieu’s first recommendation, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? Hoping to build on the successes of the civil rights movement, King calls for the unification of all Americans under a common cause — equal opportunity for all. The book argues for a universal basic income, a proposal that is still brought up frequently as a solution to poverty. Where Do We Go From Here was reprinted and expanded in 2010, with a foreword from Coretta Scott King.
Professor James W. Loewen has written several books about the ways Americans misremember, tone down, and outright lie about our history. His most famous work, which Landrieu mentions specifically as “critically important,” is Lies My Teacher Told Me. In this national best-seller, Loewen uses examples from high school textbooks to discuss how and why myths about American history are proliferated.
The 2007 revised edition of Lies My Teacher Told Me includes sections on 9/11 and the Iraq War, the research for which caused a minor controversy when Loewen discovered that two popular textbooks — by different authors — had “virtually identical” passages describing the attack on the Twin Towers.
Landrieu calls Jesmyn Ward, author of the 2017 National Book Award-winning novel Sing, Unburied, Sing, a “beautiful new writer,” before correcting himself: “She’s been around for a long time, but people are recognizing her now.” He recommends her 2012 novel Salvage the Bones, about a poor Mississippi family dealing with the looming threat of Hurricane Katrina.
Landrieu was lieutenant governor of Louisiana when Katrina devastated the southeast United States, and he speaks often about the experience of rebuilding New Orleans after the storm. It’s no wonder this particular story resonated with him.
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration is a national best-seller about “the people that left the South because of the sense of oppression, and how much we lost because of it.” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson tracks the diaspora of millions of black Southerners to the far corners of the United States. Wilkerson follows three of those domestic immigrants who moved to Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles in the hopes of escaping prejudice and poverty.
You can listen to Mitch Landrieu on The Ezra Klein Show by subscribing on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts, or by streaming the episode here: