The visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the United States revives for Madame Chouteau fond memories of the stop in St. Louis of Pope John Paul II in January, 1999.
It was exciting. Even today I can replay in my mind the tv footage of the Popemobile carrying Pope John Paul through the empty streets of St. Louis. Yes, empty! Nobody came out to see the Pope. No cheering crowds lined the streets. I can hear the news announcer intoning before the event: "Don’t even think about coming downtown (to see the Pope)." St. Louis leaders forecast that the crowds would yield gridlock, and so they orchestrated a media campaign to keep traffic in check. It was a clear case of meddling (big brother knows best) and overkill. They scared almost everyone away from the historic event.
Not only did people who wanted to see the Pope stay home, but downtown workers took time off, staying home to avoid being caught in the anticipated crowds.
The "St Louis Post-Dispatch" story dated 1/31/1999 by Repps Hudson and headlined "Business prayers weren’t answered" describes disappointed parking lot owners (their lots were empty), unhappy restaurant owners (burdened with extra supplies laid in for the non-existent crowds), etc.
A paragraph from the story stated that "according to many merchants and restaurateurs, the news media left the indelible impression that downtown would be swamped with cars, pedestrians and papal parades. So tens of thousands of people who normally went downtown stayed away Tuesday and Wednesday."
One quote from Hudson’s story says it all: "Downtown looked like a city during World War II," and the interviewee added: "Downtown has a tendency to do boo-boos like this."
The blame game is classic St. Louis. The absence of people was blamed on the weather and on papal security. And the press was blamed for publicizing the dire warnings that organizers told them to publicize.
More insightful than blaming the weather and the press, though, was the blaming of the citizenry. Following is a quote from the "P-D" story: "‘We had no idea the local folks could be so easily swayed and scared,’ Franklin "Kim" Kimbrough of the Downtown Saint Louis Partnership said Friday. Kimbrough had urged street-level businesses to stay open to show the world how downtown works."
But some good came from this debacle. It put a name and a face on a time-honored leadership tactic. To get your way, do a "Pope Scare." Basically, a Pope Scare campaign is designed to terrorize the populace so they do what civic leaders want, usually something contrary to public interests and good government.
For example, when the Cardinals owners wanted a new stadium and tax breaks, the Pope Scare line was: "If the poor Cardinals owners don’t get what they are so humbly seeking and need, then the team will move to East St. Louis (or Granite City or Mascoutah or East Whatever)." The majority of the population trembled in its shoes, and the Cardinals received whatever they demanded. A mud hole is only a down payment in the price to pay.
And how about this one: "If the voters don’t approve legalized gambling, then gambling tax revenues will not be available to revive and power our school system and people will not move to the city." Well, that certainly has worked out! The City of St. Louis public school system makes the wreck of the Hesperas look like sunny day, smooth water sailing.
Want another? How about: "If you don’t vote for this sales tax increase, then our firemen and policemen will not get a raise and they will quit and your house will burn down and you will be at the mercy of criminal elements." The resulting increased tax revenues mean that municipal finances do not need to be put in order. Special interests can continue to feed at the trough.
On the national level, here’s a great Pope Scare from the Bush-Cheney misinformation machine: "If the troops are brought home from Iraq, Al Qaeda will follow them home."
And, of course, the local beer peddlers have one for the Soulard neighborhood: "If Mardi Gras moves downtown, then all the police will be there, and when drunken hordes return to Soulard, the residents will be at their mercy." Another overkill. Downtown wouldn’t touch that pig. Let it wallow where it is.
In the St. Louis vernacular, Pope Scares are fabrications designed to invoke fear. And they really work. But we always pay a price for buying a phony line in exchange for security. Madame Chouteau loves Pope Scares and applauds their use by our leaders. Pope Scare based government is a substitute for thoughtful planning and real leadership. So when somebody tells you to go with the flow or something terrible will befall you and the entire community, think of the Pope. His was a lonely, bleak introduction to the deserted streets of St. Louis. And St. Louis lost an historical moment on the world stage.