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opinion

A couple of summers ago, I found myself in a high-school gym in New Orleans listening to the city's mayor, Mitch Landrieu, handle questions from a hostile crowd that was out for his head.

The issues confronting the people living in Algiers weren't unique to their working-class neighbourhood – crime, sinking roads, blight, police brutality and racism were problems throughout New Orleans. The city's challenges were made greater by the destructive forces of Hurricane Katrina and storms Ike and Rita that followed. The BP oil spill and financial recession of 2009 also had a devastating impact on the local economy.

Arguably no city in the United States endured as much trauma as New Orleans in the decade between 2005 and 2015. Without question, Mr. Landrieu held one of the country's toughest jobs.

Read more: After the flood: How the people of New Orleans are healing

Over the two hours I watched him interact with his audience, I was impressed with how deftly, and subtly, he lowered the temperature in the room. By the end, he was even getting some laughs, and occasionally polite applause. At the conclusion of the meeting, he hung around for 45 minutes to talk to anyone who wanted some one-on-one time. He took notes – and phone numbers. His shirt was drenched with perspiration. His bald head teemed with sweat.

Afterward, he and I sat down in the bleachers and talked for another hour about the strides the city had made in the last few years. At the same time, he was brutally honest about how far it had to go; infrastructure was crumbling, the murder rate was a national shame and income inequality was evident everywhere, especially among the city's black population.

While far from a household name in the United States, I remember thinking at the time Mr. Landrieu was someone whose political horizon could one day stretch all the way to Washington – although he poo-pooed having any grander ambitions than the job he had.

Recently, however, the New Orleans's mayor may have unwittingly (or wittingly) launched the journey that could one day take him to the White House. In a stunningly eloquent speech defending the city's decision to remove four statues honouring Confederate generals and soldiers, Mr. Landrieu reminded Americans why words continue to matter.

It was the kind of soaring oratory that became the foundation of Barack Obama's historic rise to power. And against the backdrop of the current administration, and the monosyllabic shallowness of President Donald Trump, it stood out even more.

In one memorable line, Mr. Landrieu undermined the notion that statues such as the one glorifying the racist Civil War general Robert E. Lee were necessary to recognize the country's history. Said Mr. Landrieu: "There are no slave-ship monuments, no prominent markers on public land to remember the lynchings or the slave blocks. …"

He went on: "These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring enslavement and the terror that it actually stood for."

Taking these statues down was not an easy thing to do in a southern city such as New Orleans, where racism remains entrenched. Many residents thought the mayor needed to be worrying more about murder and less about monuments. But he felt it was time the South confronted a deeply painful issue. He thought about what a black mother would tell a young daughter who asked about the metal sculptures and what these men had done to be exalted in this manner.

"Can you look into that young girl's eyes and convince her that Robert E. Lee is there to encourage her?" he said in his speech. "Do you think she will feel inspired and hopeful by that story?"

It was brilliant.

In the last month, Mr. Landrieu was mentioned in The New York Times as a possible contender for the Democratic presidential nomination for 2020 – along with the names of many others. But even if this speech doesn't take him any further than the mayor's office, it was important.

It was important because it was an exemplary example of a politician taking on a tough issue, knowing the solution will create upset and anguish. But also, elegantly explaining the rationale behind his decision.

After four years of Mr. Trump, the United States might be in dire need of some healing, in dire need of someone whose words can be a balm, that can serve to inspire and educate at the same time.

Mitch Landrieu. Remember the name. You may not have heard the last of it.