Keeping in mind that the race is not always to the swift nor victory to the strong, although, as some wag (Damon Runyon, we think) added centuries later, that is the way we bet, we call the winners in various head-to-head matches:
Joel Osteen vs. The Dalai Lama, on Live with Larry King, last Sunday night: Not really “versing”* each other but paired side-by-side on screen to chew over the hurricane from competing (or perhaps complementary) theological viewpoints. Wizened ol’ Larry immediately drove the discussion the wrong way down a one-way street by asking the Dalai Lama what he’d say to those whose faith in God had been shaken by the hurricane, apparently not having been briefed that Buddhists such as TDL don’t “have faith” in a theistic sense but instead start from the First Noble Truth that to live is to suffer, etc. TDL looked as if he misunderstood Larry’s question and gave some halting non-memorable answer, but he tried to recover later by explaining that Buddhists view the disaster as another manifestation of karma, an oft-misunderstood concept that he thankfully didn’t try to elaborate on in the company of Larry King (other than moving his hand about in a circle [?]). Osteen, meanwhile, seemed to have come up with a more polished response to the question of theodicy than the one we’d seen him give shortly after the hurricane, when he said that evacuees could look on this particular act of God as an occasion to make a brand new start. This time, the preacher fell back on the tried and true standby: that God’s works are mysterious, that man can’t ever know God’s will, that believers should keep on believing, etc. But Osteen really brightened when he got to talk about the good works his Lakewood Church is performing for the evacuees (demonstrating again that organized religion is more effective and at ease when it’s doing things---saving souls, feeding the hungry, issuing fatwa, conducting Inquisitions, etc.---than when it’s trying to answer the really big and bothersome questions).
Winner: Osteen, by a nose (sharper dresser, far better command of the English language than TDL).
Ray Nagin vs. The World: The world’s kicking his ass. ("Ten thousand dead"?) But everybody loves Ray, right?
Winner So Far: The World (but hold on---we hear the mayor’s a closer).
Choke City vs. Clutch City: The Houston with the burdensome inferiority complex (the one that gives a shit what the New York Times says about it) vs. the capable, humble, can-do city with the big shoulders, wide bottom and heart of a champ-pee-yon. But look out: a third contestant has entered the ring, the city of overweening hubris, its air thick with self-congratulation, where swells and civic leaders gather to party and “preen” over Houston's post-Katrina performance (according to no less an authority on social preening than the Houston Chronicle’s Shelby Hodge). Be careful: Pride do indeedth goeth before a fall.
Winner So Far: Clutch City (but the scorecard isn't fully tallied).
Bush vs. Bush: Ok, he’s taken responsibility for the “serious problems” in the federal government’s response---the manly thing to do, certainly, and much out of character for Bush (a development with which Jon Stewart had fantastic fun on Wednesday night). Perhaps some of those lower down the chain in our federalist system may now be emboldened to step forward and seek contrition for their own shortcomings. But the mea culpa is unlikely to shift the debate---is the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd actually blaming Bush for the 34 deaths at the St. Bernard nursing home? Still (and we're writing just before his big Thursday night speech), we find Bush’s passive, above-it-all non-performance unsettling and eerily parallel to his approach to Iraq: He makes a bold decision (in this case his early emergency declaration; that certainly got our attention) that’s supposed to reflect a decisive, sleeves-up style of leadership, then he basically checks out and leaves it all to his allegedly competent subordinates … and the shit starts rolling meanly downhill. Not that we’d request a Carter-like obsession with detail, but we’d feel better if we had learned that Bush had gotten on his cell Tuesday or Wednesday after the hurricane and started ripping and roaring at his underlings to get those folks some help. But he didn’t, as far as we know (and if we heard it now we wouldn’t believe it).
Addendum, Re: His Thursday night speech: That settles it. He's a liberal.
Winner: Bush as LBJ, with a second term
Louisiana vs. The Rest of the United States: Again, not really versing* each other as such, but we can’t think of a state less equipped, in a civic sense, to deal with the confluence of natural and man-made events that resulted in the tragedy of Katrina (of course, we’ve only driven through North Dakota). It’s a historical, or even karmic, condition: As Stanley Kowalski himself put it, “In Louisiana, we got what’s known as the Napoleonic Code …” We tried to think of how now-imprisoned Edwin Edwards would have performed had he still been governor and concluded that it’s unlikely anyone would have gotten off of a roof any quicker, or the stores would have gone unlooted---in fact, the situation probably would’ve been worse---although Edwards would have made sure his son or brother got a cut of the clean-up and rebuilding contracts. The smooth lines of “charming” bullshit he’d now be spreading would sound tinny and off-key, which just serves to underscore the enormity of the tragedy.
Winner: The Rest of the United States
Ye Olde New Orleans vs. The New New Orleans: We heard some guy on NPR chattering about how New Orleans is poised now to become “Hollywood South” and attract “lots of cool young people,” meaning white folks without kids, parents or grandparents or even first cousins in the city. We were young once, although not so cool, and for a non-native shot a small but unhealthy percentage of our youthful wad in New Orleans. A couple of days after the hurricane we were getting all weepy and began typing up personal memories of the city, without spell-checking the restaurants or streets (it’s Freret, not Feret, dumbass) and purposely omitting the bad stuff (the 1984 World’s Fair, the time we and two other clowns had to “run for our lives” on Napoleon in broad daylight after a failed attempt to make a small purchase, the countless stoopid Mardi Gras[es] we’ve mostly and thankfully forgotten, etc.). When we went back a couple of days later to read it over, these stale reminiscences reminded us of the jottings of an upper-class Brit touring the colonies during the late 19th century and remarking on the local delicacies while ignoring the malaria epidemic festering among the natives. Y’know, as a frequent visitor it was all about music we heard, or food we ate, or spectacles we witnessed. Not really the hard day-to-day task of living there, for real. We haven’t been to New Orleans in a good five years, but even prior to that it appeared that the touristy part of the town was already the theme park people now fear the entire city will become (case in point: the disassociation we felt for 15 years hearing chanky-chank music blaring from every other tourist shop or bar in the French Quarter; when we lived in New Orleans briefly 30+ years ago you probably couldn’t find an accordion or washboard within 40 miles of Bourbon Street, and the absolutely only place to hear authentic Cajun music was way the hell on out on the highway in St. Bernard Parish, Cajun being a whole different plate of boiled shrimp than New Orleans). So much good to keep, but so much bad, too … a hard city, before the flood.
Winner: Time will tell. As they say.
State of Louisiana vs. Salvador and Mable Mangano, owners of St. Rita’s Nursing Home in Chalmette, charged with 34 counts of negligent homicide: Now here are some culprits that we can blame, without equivocation. If there’s lynch mob forming for these fuckers, we’re in.
Winner: Old folks everywhere, we hope.
Nature vs. Man
*”Versing,” the verb form of the preposition versus, as used by countless children all over the United States, a perfectly fine and serviceable grouping of vowels and consonants that should be added to the official lexicography ASAP.