“I want to offer this prophecy. I believe New Orleans is on the eve of a great Renaissance,” said Hershel Abbott Jr., Rex 2011, to Mayor Mitch Landrieu and the dignitaries at Gallier Hall. “A renaissance in education, in economics, and in culture. And, all that is required is that everyone believe and work for that.”
Just as the King-for-a-Day wished for the citizens of New Orleans “a happy, healthy and safe Mardi Gras”, Abbott also paraphrased the Bard in his hope for the city.
“Methinks that I am a prophet new inspired,” Rex revealed to his subjects--answering the naysayers who has said--too often--that New Orleans’ best days were behind her. In Abbott’s view, the spirit of innovation and recovery engendered in years after Hurricane Katrina provide the promise that this city stands on the cusp of what could prove its most remarkable era.
In an interview the day before his ride as Rex, Abbott explained at Mardi Gras, the revelers suspend disbelief and believe in a fantasy. Yet, those the hopeful feelings of merry-making majesticness need not end at Ash Wednesday. They can be transferred into overcoming the rigors of every day life--providing an emotional new direction for an entire community.
“Sometimes that fantasy can become reality,” he pointed out, “if we just believe…as we do at Mardi Gras that anything is possible.”
These were not idle words from the Jones Walker Attorney and former Bellsouth CEO as he donned his garb as King of Carnival. Few men have been more involved in the recovery of the city then Hershel Abbott, and even fewer are better placed to judge whether the city has advanced beyond the negative reputation that so many of the city's detractors echo.
As the former chairman of the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority and board member of Tulane Medical Center and the state Board of Regents, as well as current leader of the boards of Baptist Community Ministries and the St. Thomas Community Health Center, Abbott has played a role at every level in the rebuilding of neighborhoods and the health, social, and educational infrastructure that supports them.
As a current board member of Dillard University, the Metropolitan Crime Commission, the Louisiana Museum Foundation, WYES-TV, the Bureau of Governmental Research and the President’s Council of Tulane University, as well as the incoming Chairman of the National World War II Museum, Abbott has seen first-hand the many ways that New Orleans is setting the standards in education, biotechnology corridors, and the cultural economy.
Much media attention surrounded Newsweek’s recent article on citing New Orleans in “The Death of Cities”, but only a handful of local reporters paid attention to a contemporaneous piece in Forbes that rated the Crescent City as placing in the top ten for business development in metropolises of over a million people. (And it was not alone. Baton Rouge was number two for cities of a half million residents across the entire US.)
Even disaster has created opportunity as affordable property costs has spawned an influx of young people into the central city. New Orleans has become the de rigueur stop off for recent Ivy League graduates, living and working in the Crescent City prior to starting their stellar careers. And many of those best and brightest, like Abbott himself once did, have opted to stay New Orleans long term, using their entrepreneurial talents in small business and education to better our city.
Abbott’s contention that New Orleans’ best days were ahead was not some misplaced verbal jingoism, but stands a statistical reality based on quantifiable data. Still, the metrics mean nothing if the people of New Orleans and their leaders do not draw inspiration from the real progress the city has made—and use it to engender a belief in a bright horizon ahead.
In trying to prophecy a glowing future for the city, Abbott is the first Rex in years to actually fulfill his role of “constitutional monarch” of the Crescent City. Rex was intended to truly be a King, and by law, he is.
When Mitch Landrieu told this year’s King of Carnival, “On behalf of the City of New Orleans, we bequeath the streets to you;” the Mayor was not being metaphorical.
In 1872, local leaders learned that the Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff Alexandrovich, an heir to the Russian Imperial Throne, had become so smitten with singer Lydia Thompson and her song “If Ever I Cease to Love”, that he changed his travel plans (and those of his huge entourage), deciding to come to New Orleans to see her perform once again. By coincidence, it was just around Carnival time..
Most cities might have built a reviewing stand or had a celebration. New Orleanians went further, concluding that they had to create a King to meet a Prince. Hence, Rex, the King of Carnival and his Krewe were born in the space of days.
Carnival had boasted at least three different “kings” at the time, but the city’s government wanted clarity. It was literally put into the statutory code that Rex would reign over New Orleans on Mardi Gras itself.
Today, while in theory, the King of Carnival has executive authority for one day a year, in practice, Rex is the focal point for our culture and aspirations of the city. He is our constitutional monarch, our George VI, our Elizabeth II.
As Abbott, a noted Churchill scholar would know, like the King of Great Britain, Rex should speak for the Gestalt of His People, with the powers to advise and recommend, if not command. And, we, both politicians and subjects, should respect the wisdom of His words.
In doing his prophetic duty, Abbott fulfilled the role of Rex in a way that only a few of his predecessors in regal office have matched. He told the Mayor and Citizenry of that which they should be proud and urged them to hold to the hope for a bright future. Such a positivity is necessary for New Orleans to meet the potential, as Abbott described, “of being one of the greatest cities in the world.”
Starting his speech to the Mayor with a quote from Shakespeare’s Richard II, it may be worth reciting the remainder of the passage, as a warning to those who use their negativity to constantly belittle what the city has achieved in so short a time since Hurricane Katrina.
To the naysayers, one could could easily say, “Methinks I am a prophet new inspired. And thus, expiring, do foretell of him: His rash fierce blaze of riot cannot last, For violent fires soon burn out themselves; Small show'rs last long, but sudden storms are short; He tires betimes that spurs too fast betimes; With eager feeding doth choke the feeder; Light vanity, insatiate cormorant, Consuming means, soon preys upon itself.”
Believe in New Orleans, our King commands, as do our descendants in the generations to come.