Happy birthday, Gambit; my how things have changed

By Andrei Codrescu

Gambit, New Orleans’s alternative weekly is 25 years old this week. Mazeltov! Exactly five years ago, my face was the Gambit bikini for Gambit’s 20th anniversary cover girl. The cover girl, who is a famous writer, posed naked for that cover, concealing herself with an earlier Valentine’s Day Gambit that featured my picture on the cover. In short, I ran cover for her cover.

The same year, 2001, I was King of the Krewe de Vieux at Mardi Gras, a very great honor hard to explain to outsiders. It’s hard to beat a year like that. The euphoria wasn’t just personal: all of America was feeling giddy. The presidency of George W. Bush was only a few months old. 9/11 was a few months in the future. No one could have suspected that less than a year later we’d attack Afghanistan and later enter an endless war in Iraq under false pretenses. Certainly, nobody suspected that for Gambit’s 25th anniversary we would still be at war, that gas prices would reach and surpass 1970s levels, that a huge chasm would open between the rich and the poor and that an apocalypse-size storm would destroy our beloved city.

It took only four years for an America still drunk with the potential of post-Cold War opportunities to go from being the world’s most respected power to being hated around the world. It took four years for George W. Bush and his gang of radical cronies to spend all the capital of goodwill we had acquired after the Cold War. They spent it with a vengeance abroad. Within the U.S. they proclaimed a kingdom of fear and they began to demolish civil liberties in the name of national security. Republicans abandoned all their principles, including that of a smaller government, to vote for the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the biggest bureaucracy ever conceived in Washington in the modern age. Republicans and Democrats alike voted for war and fanned the flames of patriotard hysteria. The weakest (or most confused) Congress in U.S. history turned out to be a cover for an incompetent administration.

But what is truly unimaginable in 2006 was that none of it worked. Our adventures abroad revealed the weakness of our triumphalist thinking. The realities of globalization gave the lie to the nationalist rhetoric of the leadership. American jobs migrated abroad and no public posturing against immigration could stop the demand for cheap labor in the U.S. And worst of all, for us, Homeland Security turned out to be an inefficient paper lion good only for breeding national insecurity and hysteria. When the chips were down in New Orleans, they were paralyzed by impotence.

For the past four years lying became our leaders’ chief mode of public expression. Polluters declared themselves environmentalists. Warmongers — peace lovers. The breeders of homeland insecurity — defenders of freedom. The president’s favorite digest of the generalized lie was to declare “success” whenever something was about to go woefully wrong. No W.M.D.’s in Iraq? We’ll find them! Success! The war in Iraq a year later? Success! The Gulf Coast recovery? Success! George Orwell came home. And he was pissed: “1984” was worse than he thought — it barely spoke English.

Gambit’s editor asked me if I’d write about Gambit’s next 25 years. You must be kidding, boss! I’ll be lucky if I could predict the next five minutes. Tell you what, though: the day I’m a cover boy again, or a cover for a famous young naked writer, the good times will roll again. When that happens, I predict: the war will be over and New Orleans will be the New Jerusalem.

Codrescu’s new book is “New Orleans, Mon Amour: Twenty Years of Writing From the City,” www.codrescu.com