The Facts of Life (And Death)

In the emotional retelling of tragedy, are facts important? Depending on the type of person you are, minute-by-minute details might be the only important part of the story. Others may discount factual data altogether because the delivery of the narrative is so compelling. At that moment, it is the outpouring of emotion that IS the story. 

When Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard last appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press, his heart wrenching story about the drowning death of a colleague’s mother, and his subsequent on air collapse stunned America, giving him a strange sort of instant celebrity status. He was suddenly known as that guy who cried on TV. And not just a misty eye and sniffles. He was weeping. Broussard was inconsolable, and Tim Russert was left sitting there stunned like the rest of his viewers. It was a ‘television moment’ to be sure.

But before the sobbing, Broussard called over and over for explanations as to why the federal government relief efforts hadn’t yet materialized. He said that “bureaucracy had committed murder in New Orleans”, and that “bureaucracy should have to stand trial.” As he continued to direct his criticism toward Washington, Russert interrupted Broussard with this question:

Mr. Russert:  Hold on.  Hold on, sir.  Shouldn’t the mayor of New Orleans and the governor of New Orleans bear some responsibility?  Couldn’t they have been much more forceful, much more effective and much more organized in evacuating the area?

Mr. Broussard:  Sir, they were told like me, every single day, “The cavalry’s coming,” on a federal level, “The cavalry’s coming, the cavalry’s coming, the cavalry’s coming.”  I have just begun to hear the hoofs of the cavalry.  The cavalry’s still not here yet, but I’ve begun to hear the hoofs, and we’re almost a week out.

“But I want to thank Governor Blanco for all she’s done and all her leadership. She sent in the National Guard.”

It was just after this exchange that Mr. Broussard retold the story we now know.

Then there was the news this past week that Broussard’s emotional retelling included details that conflict with the timeline of the tragedy.

Fast forward to Sunday, September 25th. Tim Russert called Aaron Broussard back to Meet the Press, and asked him about the discrepancies. Russert didn’t challenge the credibility of Broussard’s emotional outburst during his previous appearance. He did ask the Jefferson Parish president to react to criticism directed toward him by MSNBC and “blog organizations” who have looked into the facts behind his comments.

Mr. Russert: Mr. Broussard, the people who are questioning your comments are saying that you accused the federal government and the bureaucracy of murder, specifically calling on the secretary of Homeland Security and using this as an example to denounce the federal government. And what they’re saying is, in fact, it was the local government that did not evacuate Eva Rodrigue on Friday or on Saturday. And they’re making that, in fact…

Mr. Broussard: Sir…

Mr. Russert: Let me just finish. I’ll give you a chance to respond.

Mr. Broussard: Yes.

Mr. Russert: And, in fact, the owners of the nursing home, Salvador and Mable Mangano, have been indicted with 34 counts of negligent homicide by the Louisiana state attorney general. So it was the owners of the nursing home and the local government that are responsible for the lack of evacuation and not the federal government. Is that fair?

Mr. Broussard: Sir, with everything I said on Meet the Press, the last punctuation of my statements were the story that I was going to tell in about maybe two sentences. It just got emotional for me, sir. Talk about the context of everything I said. Were we abandoned by the federal government? Absolutely we were. Were there more people that abandoned us? Make the list. The list can go on for miles.

Those people should be strung up. Those people should be burned at the stake. And I’m sure Congress and the press is going to do that.

Mr. Russert: At the local, state and federal level.

Mr. Broussard: Sir, at every level. Are you kidding? This is a jigsaw puzzle. This is a mosaic. The blame will be shared by everybody.

So, thinking again about facts and emotions, who are you? Or better yet, which are you? Mr. Hard-As-Nails or Mrs. Touchy-Feely? Are you the type who can’t help but get caught up in the details of a story? Do you need all the pieces of the puzzle to fit perfectly before you can make the summary judgement, or is it the drama that grabs you?  

Call me Hard-As-Nails.

Did I feel terrible when I saw Broussard break down on national television? Of course I did. What I saw was a man who had (understandably) lost all ability to function with reason. He was living a nightmare and when he thought of the death of his colleague’s mother he had nothing left. It came out the only way it could. Seeing that video, I think it was amazing that Broussard could remember his own name. On camera, in front of millions of viewers, facts weren’t important to him. I can accept that.

But in the moments before the total breakdown, he did relay facts. He accused people of wrong doing. He pushed most of the blame in a certain direction and not a lot in the other. We now know that Mayor Ray Nagin and Governor Kathleen Blanco had breakdowns of their own. Lives were lost due to the delay of relief into New Orleans. The federal government, Mayor Nagin and Governor Blanco deserve to be blamed for their inaction.

But did Broussard need to explain why he didn’t get the timeline correct regarding the day his colleague’s mother drowned? No, for reasons I’ve already given. Broussard said, “it just got emotional for me, sir”, and I have no reason not to believe him. 

So it was right for Mr. Russert to ask Mr. Broussard to come back to Meet the Press and answer the critics who care about facts. I was glad to hear Broussard state again and again that he believes all branches of government were to blame for the tragedy in New Orleans and that they should be held accountable. I think he needed to do that, and for me his statement to that end closed the book on the subject.

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