COLUMN ONE : Barry: He Keeps D.C. Guessing : Media scapegoat? Target of a racist plot? Victim of his own excesses? The mayor not only weathers unending controversy, at times he seems to court it.
Inside an elementary school auditorium, in a run-down part of town that tourists never see, Mayor Marion Barry is lecturing 400 youngsters on the evils of drugs and the importance of staying clean.
As mayor of one of the nation’s most drug-plagued cities, Barry visits three or four schools a week with his message. It is his way, he says, of helping motivate the children.
His style is relaxed, warm, captivating.
“How many y’all know somebody in your family using drugs?” he asks gently. Nearly every tiny hand in the auditorium rises.
Barry counsels by personal example. “From time to time,” he tells them, he is accustomed to “having a glass of wine.” But, when his 9-year-old son once asked him why he drinks it, it made a lasting impression. So, he advises the children, whenever someone in the family uses drugs, “Ask them why . . . and ask them to get some help.”
It is a good speech. After leading the youngsters in a Jesse Jacksonesque chant--"Keep myself . . . drug-free! Drug-Free! DRUG-FREE!!!!"--Barry opens the floor to questions.
For moments, no one moves. Finally, a solemn-faced little boy marches up the aisle to the microphone, looks up at Barry with steady eyes and, in his small child’s voice, asks:
“Do people believe you when you say you don’t use drugs?”
A hush falls over the auditorium. No one even snickers. The silence is complete, the scene indelible:
Here stands the mayor of the Free World’s capital city, a tall, nice-looking, balding man of 53 in a dark business suit, trying to explain to 400 kids whose lives are being ravaged daily by drugs that he himself is not an addict, a hypocrite, a criminal.
He does it quickly, quietly, in an odd, back-handed way. The news media always focuses on “the negatives,” he says. But he is a trained chemist, he knows what drugs can do. And “I know that you can’t be a good mayor high on drugs and alcohol, and I want to be a good mayor. I know that you have to keep your body drug-free so that your mind will function well. And I’m going to continue to fight for a drug-free D.C.”
A different man might surrender, call it quits, retire, anything to avoid such punishing moments as these. A different man, his reputation already in shreds over his own whispered drug habit, might at least avoid kamikaze runs into neighborhood schools.
Marion Barry’s answer is to speed away in his big chauffeur- driven Lincoln to do it again, this time to a group of third-graders.
From yesterday’s civil rights hero to today’s TV talk show joke, Marion Barry is ridiculed, mocked, disgraced. “Mayor Barely,” the pundits call him. “Jerk in the Box,” blares a local magazine cover. “King Nightowl,” hoots an Oliphant cartoon. “Know what the mayor’s answer is to a paralyzing snowstorm?” cackles a comic. “Quick, gimme a straw!”
Barry’s much-rumored drug use has never been proved, and he denies it, but it no longer matters. Years of investigations and allegations, the constant gossip about pending indictments, the nonstop headlines blaring luridly of the mayor’s personal life have all added up: Innocent or guilty, Barry is a man permanently branded, victim of that old saw--where there’s smoke, there must be fire.
Some of his oldest friends and political advisers have lately jumped ship, publicly urging him not to seek a fourth term, for the city’s sake, and for his own. Five candidates have already announced for next fall’s mayoral race, attacking not only Barry’s image but his leadership, too. On Capitol Hill, critics say Barry has set back the District of Columbia’s quest for statehood by 20 years.
And all about town, beyond the nation’s monuments and shrines, throughout this curious no man’s land where some 600,000 Americans, most of them black, live under supervision of the U.S. Congress, the debate goes on: Is Marion Barry the victim of trial by press, of a racist plot against black home rule, or of his own excesses? Is he a sick addict, a brazen rake, or a martyr? Is this a Greek tragedy, or a bad joke?
Washingtonians have been asking themselves these questions virtually every day since they elected Barry in 1978.
A Mississippi sharecropper’s son with a master’s degree in chemistry, Barry was among the most important voices of the 1960s civil rights campaign, a founder and first national chairman of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and prime mover in the Free D.C. Movement, one of the militant, dashiki-clad symbols of an era. Then, as now, he held special appeal for the poor and the elderly; then, as now, D.C.'s affluent black Establishment was unimpressed, finding his street language especially vulgar. A ‘Bama, they call him behind his back--low born, country bumpkin, hick.
Barry has never been a low-profile politician. He can’t stay out of the news for his life--whether he’s getting caught in the Caribbean with a woman not his wife, or in a sleazy topless bar in downtown D.C. where cocaine was allegedly sold openly.
One day, it’s the taint of City Hall corruption--people close to Barry keep going to jail for pilfering the public coffers, his ex-wife and two deputy mayors among them. Next day it’s yet another unverifiable rumor that Barry’s been hospitalized for overdosing, or titillating grand jury leaks, or gossip about his friends with drug connections and city contracts.
Regardie’s, the tony local business magazine, once even excerpted torrid passages from the diary of an alleged girlfriend, a convicted drug dealer, who described Barry’s sexual performance for the world: “Very verbal in bed. . .great!”
But last November came the greatest Barry sensation of all: The government produced its first-ever alleged eyewitness against him. A former friend and city employee, Charles Lewis, testified in federal court that he sold Barry crack cocaine on several occasions in 1988 in a downtown hotel room. Barry insists that his visits were innocent social calls and dismisses his old pal as a cornered man trying to cut a deal for himself in exchange for helping the feds hook Washington’s biggest fish.
Amid this clutter of scandal, Barry’s mayoral record is also under unprecedented assault. Critics accuse him of “losing focus,” of bloating the bureaucracy for political purposes, at the expense of deteriorating city services; his supporters--who reelected him to his third term in a landslide--credit him with creating one of the nation’s most prosperous black middle classes.
Adding to Barry’s headaches, his old civil rights chum, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, has moved to town, where he sits in coy silence, focusing even more national attention on Barry’s problems by refusing to flatly rule out his own eventual mayoral candidacy. In a remark Barry called “outrageous,” Jackson once commented that he was praying for the mayor’s health.
Nowadays, there are even places in his own back yard where Marion Barry dares not go for fear of being heckled. He doesn’t handle it well. When a band of rowdies jeered him at a street festival in September, Barry’s response was spontaneous and unequivocal: He flashed his antagonists one of his dazzling smiles, and an obscene gesture.
A Roman Lion
“I’m gonna be like that lion the Romans had,” Barry chuckles softly. “They can just keep throwin’ stuff at me, you know? But I’ll be kickin’ their asses, every time! In the end, I be sittin’ there, lickin’ my paws !”
Barry is sitting in one of his favorite late-night bars, a dim, noisy, upscale place in an all-black part of town, drumming the table top to the blaring jukebox, dancing in his chair, sipping his wine, restless, eyes roaming the room, raw energy barely bridled. “I’d run now even if I didn’t want to,” he says, smiling sulkily through the gloom. “And I’ll get 65% of the vote--at least. Isn’t anybody in this town can beat me. I’m invincible.”
That includes Jackson. “Hah, Jesse don’t wanna be no mayor,” he snaps. “Jesse don’t wanna run nothing but his mouth. Besides, he’d be the laughingstock of America! He’d be run outta town if he ran against me. Even my enemies don’t appreciate him coming in here saying: ‘This is mine to take.’ ”
So much for the understated man on the elementary school stage. Even Barry’s speech changes in private, now a soft, mumbled patter of dropped words and careless grammar, calling for an acquired ear. And no way is he understated. He is Pride itself, holding hard to tattered garb.
“Co-caaaane? How folks use that stuff, anyhow?” he asks, mockingly, coy, flaunting it all.
“You put it up your nooose? No! Oooooooeeeeeee!” And with a mock shudder he dances off to the men’s room, returning 10 minutes later to wonder, laughingly, sardonically, how much a Marion Barry urine specimen might be worth to the media or the feds--interchangeable elements, in his mind, in the racist conspiracy against him.
Barry ascribes all his difficulties to a venal, calculated smear campaign orchestrated by the white media to humiliate and unseat a popular black mayor for trying to spread the wealth.
This notion is not frivolous, not in this black city. The concept of a racist conspiracy to undermine black self-government is so prevalent that it is known simply as The Plan, and it is one reason nobody thinks Marion Barry can be easily defeated, drug rumors or not, unless Jackson runs, and maybe not even then. Whether the mayor uses cocaine may be less of a factor in the upcoming election than race and class polarization.
Barry promotes The Plan daily, in ways subtle and flagrant. “I’m innocent of all these things. The (Washington) Post has decided my time’s up, that’s all,” he says, matter-of-factly of his principal antagonist.
“But it’s not unusual,” he adds, “I guess some people find it hard to believe, but historically, those who do good sometimes suffer the most. Jesus is an example. Or Gandhi, in India . . . he was put in jail and eventually killed.”
Then, like some exuberant, stormy teen-ager trapped in an early autumn body, the mayor’s mind is suddenly prowling the rich realms of sex. “All this slander, about me chasing women--I’m innocent,” he protests, silky and sly. He wonders if his second wife still loves him, then concludes that the poor woman must--she never had it so good in bed. “I was good then, I’m even better now,” he proclaims. The Mayor (now remarried, with one son) is an expert in creative obscenities relative to sex, even more so when he’s discussing how many ways he’s been violated by the press.
He frowns. It does Barry no good whatsoever, dwelling on his enemies. “Father, forgive them,” he says sarcastically, slugging back a wine, “for they know not what they do.” Grin.
What galls Barry most is the insult of it all. “I’m not stupid enough to have done the things they accuse me of! God gave me a good brain. What I have done nobody knows about because I don’t get caught,” he hoots.
His mind flashes next to the defectors, some of them friends for 30 years, now abandoning him, even talking about him to the media.
“Chickens, goats and Judases,” he hisses, scalded, vowing vengeance. Come victory day, “I’m gonna cut em off at the kneecaps!”
“Jews too!” he says, referring to two of the chief Judases, both former fund-raisers. “Jews should be the last to spread rumors, they’ve been persecuted themselves. You’d think they’d know better.”
But, “Truth crushed to the earth,” he purrs, “shall rise again. Martin Luther King said that.”
“I dunno. I think so. I just say whatever sounds good.”
Among the People
From early morning till the midnight hour, Marion Barry stays in the streets, among the people who can redeem him. From the glamour regions of downtown to the roughest drug zones of Southeast he goes, from schools to homeless shelters to neighborhood meetings, trolling nonstop in his big Lincoln with the bodyguard up front, the telephone in back. From here city business is conducted, interviews granted, journalists charmed, as Barry hurtles through his day, demonstrating to the world that the Mayor of D.C. is A-OK, above all this nonsense, the incumbent taking care of business.
This day begins at 8 a.m. on the public tennis courts where the “Night Owl,” as Barry has always called himself, displays if not a great game at least a proper regard for physical fitness.
“Don’t look like no drug addict, do I?” he mumbles self-consciously, plopping into a chair, drenched with sweat, patting his paunch. In first encounters, Marion Barry is shy.
“I’m the most scrutinized politician in this country,” he sighs, sounding more resigned than resentful. “It’s always open season on black mayors--look at L.A. and New York. But it’s been open season on me for 10 years . Barry bashing’s the biggest thing in town.”
Mornings turn out to be Barry’s most passive hours. He even makes a half-hearted effort to explain why he thinks the white power structure is after him.
“Take my attitude about minority businesses,” he says. “We go from 3% to 38% (in city contracts) . . . between $150 and $175 million. That threatened a lot of people. . . . They (investigators) went after this contract business from the start,” he says, shrugging, disgusted, dropping the topic.
It will be the only time all day that Barry bothers with a serious discussion of his own leadership. While his supporters work overtime, trying to turn attention from drugs to his achievements, he seems too jaded, too preoccupied, too proud--or maybe just too media-wary--to waste his breath making his own case, even when pressed. Instead, Barry’s day is one long, fascinating act of determination and defiance.
Here, at midday, two school stops later, for example, is the Mayor of D.C. suddenly, comically and inexplicably darting into an elegant lingerie shop near the White House--where he prowls about for five minutes in solemn inspection of frilly, flimsy items of women’s underwear, while three young clerks hover from a respectful distance and his bodyguards cover the doors.
He didn’t want to buy anything; he apparently only wanted to make another of his points: If he wants to peer at red satin brassieres, he by-damn will.
“That’s part of their plan--to make me scared of my own shadow, to immobilize me, get me actin’ different all of a sudden,” he says, flouncing into the Lincoln. “So then they can go around saying I’m some sort of sick addict, sick in the head ! Have people all saying ‘Oh, poor Marion! Pooooooor Marion.’ Jeer him, laugh at him, despise him--but whatever you do, don’t pity Mayor Marion Shepilov Barry Jr.
“Poor Marion nothing--poor them ,” he snaps, eyes on fire. “This isn’t any Greek tragedy! I’m not gonna meet my demise at my own hand. I quit a two-pack a day (cigarette) habit. Cold turkey! I’m a workaholic--I don’t need any crutches!”
Out of the car. Now he is sauntering through a brand new city office building, home of public assistance, where he is greeted with adoring hugs and shy smiles. A jolly, fat woman with gold-sprayed hair and nails, sitting at the front desk, regards him like a naughty son.
“Marion Barry!” she shrieks, waving bejeweled arms at the roomful of worried people before her. “We need help here, we need more people!” she lectures. “We got burnout, things moving too slow! People getting evicted, the gas getting turned off before the damn assistance gets approved!”
Barry is magic in rooms like these. Unaffected, full of easy grace, he strolls among his employees, chatting, joking, taking personal interest in how things are going. Then he flows into the crowded waiting room. People flock to him, telling him their troubles. Barry gives advice, takes names, sympathizes. One woman with a baby on her hip and sores on her face tells him she can’t afford Pampers, and he hands her a ten-dollar bill.
“Hey, the Man’s looking out for his people,” cries one young fellow in dreadlocks, happy as if he himself had been personally blessed.
“I feel good, I helped them.” Barry says, beaming, back in the Lincoln, high on public love. Then he’s nudging his visitor, pointing out the window at a city construction crew cutting a curb. “See, we’re at work,” he murmurs with satisfaction. This goes on all day. “Hang in there, Baby!” cries the driver of a passing car. “See,” Barry giggles. “I’m invincible !”
Never has federal D.C. seemed so removed, so irrelevant to what goes on in the city streets around it. A day with Barry is an adventure in island fever, like touring some small kingdom with its soft-spoken, charismatic ruler, quelling unrest.
Then, in the next moment, Barry is looking as confused, as vulnerable as he ever does. “I’m the same as I always was. I didn’t change any, they changed the rules in the middle of the game,” he complains. “I’m supposed to be the political leader of this city, not the moral leader. . . . " His voice trails off, but his point is apparent: It’s not fair.
A Charmed Life
Nothing in Barry’s history--a straight, steely, charmed march to the top--has prepared him for this:
He fought his way out of an impoverished childhood in the delta shacks of tiny Itta Bina, Miss.; he graduated from Fisk University in Nashville, then battled his way with top grades into the all-white graduate programs at the Universities of Tennessee and later Kansas, where he began his doctorate in chemistry. But then came the siren call of the ‘60s. And SNCC preempted chemistry forevermore.
He organized, protested and went to jails throughout the South, then moved to D.C. in 1965 to lead SNCC’s statehood drive. A calming voice during the 1968 riots, he also co-founded Pride Inc., a multimillion-dollar, federally funded youth training program which later became a national model in the War on Poverty. When home rule came in 1973, he was already a local star, primed for politics, elected first to the school board, then to a term on the City Council before running for mayor--endorsed, not incidentally, by the Washington Post, which once hailed him as “A Man for All Stormy Seasons”.
“I was only 42 when I was elected,” he reminds. And he’s only 53 now--"most mayors are older than that.” Marion Barry is, in short, still too young to tame. “But I’m trying to adjust to this new game,” he finishes sarcastically. “I don’t go to topless bars anymore, only to Family Rated places.”
Whereupon, in yet another exclusively Marion Barry moment, a solemn discussion is had about the mayor’s views on toplessness--"Isn’t my thing, I just go to visit with people"--and precisely why he was hanging around a seedy downtown hotel with a drug dealer to get himself into this latest mess in the first place.
“I didn’t know he (Lewis) had changed his life style,” protests Barry, sincere, burdened, beleaguered. But not repentant. Even with indictment rumors flying, Marion Barry accepts no responsibility for the scrapes he gets into:
“Chuck Lewis came from a distinguished family, he’d never been arrested in his life. I thought he was the same man. They were innocent visits. I might do something improper by some people’s lights--but I’d never knowingly do anything illegal.”
One thing for sure, if Marion Barry is lying, he’s got more gall than any 10 men. “I’m not lying!” he cries, laughing, boyish. “Here, see my eyes, they ain’t hiding no lies.” Big brown eyes, pretty grin.
And, if he’s innocent, he’s got the courage of a saint as he wades into one public gathering after another, inviting curious eyes to inspect him for themselves.
“There are two kinds of evidence, indirect--what you read in the Post and on TV--and direct. That’s me, Marion Barry. . . . " he tells a crowd of maybe 60 people, all black, at an informal neighborhood meeting in the home of a city employee. Barry attends one, sometimes two of these grass-roots “socials” nightly. They are the spine of his reelection strategy. Indeed, if racial resentments don’t get Barry reelected, his network of public employees may. In a city of about 270,000 voters, 52,000 are on his payroll. (Los Angeles, by comparison, with a population five times larger, has 14,000 fewer.)
In adult crowds, Barry doesn’t wait for the drug question to be asked, he brings it up himself: “I’m not going to tolerate this innuendo. I know about myself. I was trained as a scientist, and I know how dangerous this stuff is to your body. Plus, you can’t be a good mayor high on alcohol or anything, so we’re gonna continue waging war. . . . “
The rest of his talk is brief, reassuring. He blames the drug infestation on the federal government’s failure to intercept narcotics at the border, promises more police, more rehabilitation centers. Afterward, he does the usual chatting, mingling, caring.
“That’s how you organize,” he says, trotting buoyantly down the steps with a handful of chicken wings. “Every one of ‘em going to go home and tell five or six people the mayor cares.”
From there, the mayor pauses to “get my hair done” at the J. W. Marriott hotel (he dyes it). “See, no lint,” he chortles later, patting his freshly fragrant head. “Nobody can say I been laying out all night.”
Then to dinner, on a reporter’s tab, at one of the most expensive restaurants in town, where Barry turns his notorious charm on a pretty young waitress. “You’re looking beautiful, as usual,” he coos. He asks her about everything from her school studies to where she lives. “You married?” he asks. No, she says, flustered, flattered.
“You see how she flirted with me, how she just sashayed right up?” Barry asks, grinning, as she departs. “Why you think that is?” he wonders aloud.
Well, his reputation, maybe? His charm?
“No!” he cries, laughing out loud. “Because I’m the mayor. Power!”
He calls for a doggie bag and trots out the door, $100 in mangled haute cuisine in a tinfoil wad under his arm, late for his next appearance.
The day ends about midnight at the Redskins game. Defensive end Dexter Manley has just been banned for cocaine use. “Just another tragedy of this war,” says Barry. “It’s unfortunate that people think it’s just a matter of willpower. Addiction is a disease, we should get these people some help.
“See this,” he says, stepping into the front-row-center mayor’s box. “It’s the best one there is.” He laughs. “They can’t accuse me of getting no drugs or sex under the table here.” He is as full of nervous energy as he was on the tennis court 15 hours earlier. He drinks wine, glad-hands, gossips, cheers. But, mainly, Mayor Barry is being seen, a man of dignity, unruffled, presiding as he should be over the affairs of his people.
Drugs, Drugs, Drugs
Notably lacking in this 16-hour day with Marion Barry is much attention to affairs of governance. Late in the afternoon, he makes a two-hour visit to his office in the District Building, an ornate, pastel confection of marble and grand stairways reminiscent of some lazy Latin palace, not far from the White House.
He signs a stack of papers, then presides over a large interagency meeting on the city’s drug crisis. Drugs. Drug rumors. Drug denials. Drug wars. For Marion Barry, there no longer is any other topic. Hunks of his city are being ravaged by drugs and related violence. D.C. now leads the nation in per capita murders and infant mortality. Jails are overflowing, courts backlogged, hospitals jammed with drug cases. There are a few neighborhoods now where cabbies won’t go even in the daytime.
Barry is a picture of intent, informed leadership, as stubbornly heedless here as in the elementary schools to the bizarre credibility problem his own image now poses, innocent or not. Rumors abound that morale in D.C. city government is at an all-time low. This crowd of about 30 agency leaders looks mostly self-conscious to find yet another reporter present, tracking their controversial mayor. Afterward, they flee the media.
Barry seems oblivious to all but the need to hit the streets again. “I’ve got credibility. I’m the mayor,” he later says dismissively.
Nearly everyone agrees that Barry’s first term in office was dynamic. He promoted a downtown development and revitalization boom, restored the city’s financial credibility on Wall Street, built roads, improved services, poured resources into poor neighborhoods--and, not least, turned D.C. into a black city managed by the blacks who live in it, from top-level executive positions on down. Also, he mostly managed to keep his personal habits out of the headlines.
Whether Barry has done as well since depends on who you ask.
The huge Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union, for instance, has already endorsed him--"unanimously and enthusiastically,” declares Secretary Ron Richardson. The thriving downtown business community is nervous but not backing off yet. “The mayor has always cooperated with us, and we don’t think it’s our role to be judge and jury, or the media’s,” says William Sinclair, president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade. Minority contractors are happy. So are welfare recipients.
Unhappiest are middle-class Washingtonians without direct reliance on the city, who complain that their taxes are among the highest in the United States. Yet they are receiving steadily deteriorating city services--in everything from police protection to housing and schools. The city is under court order to correct prison and mental health facilities. Nearly half of all public housing sits idle for lack of repairs. Bureaucrats are so incompetent, arrogant and slothful, critics say, that even 911 calls go unanswered and ambulances may not arrive until tomorrow.
Blame is widely traced to the city’s vast bureaucracy--which has grown by about 10,000 employees since Barry took office. Forty-seven percent of the annual city budget goes to payroll alone. One in 12 Washingtonians is a city employee, and they are among the nation’s highest paid: The average D.C. secretary makes about $1,000 more annually than her equivalent in federal offices across the street.
“Every time something goes wrong in this town, people start talking about racism, they’re always talking about The Plan,” says veteran City Councilman John Wilson, disgusted. “Well, this government has done more to get people out of the city, with its taxing policies and housing policies, than any ‘Plan’ could have ever dreamed of accomplishing.”
Another former SNCC militant who has known Barry for 25 years, Wilson, 46, is one of Barry’s most articulate critics, widely respected, blunt and cynical. His district includes Georgetown as well as a third of the city’s public housing. Barry accuses him of treachery, of carrying water for the white man.
“The mayor has bloated the bureaucracy for his own political purposes,” says Wilson. “We can’t afford basic services, so the middle class is moving to the suburbs. We’re turning into a city of the very rich and the very poor, and (the poor) don’t pay any taxes. We’re losing our tax base. Right now, 27% of the people pay 75% of the taxes. Marion governs as if there is no tomorrow.”
Like many, Wilson is also worried that Congress might take away D.C. home rule, which gives the city limited autonomy subject to congressional veto. Relations with Capitol Hill have sunk to an all-time low. The federal payment to the district, about $400 million annually, hasn’t been increased in four years, and Congress has been overriding district legislation as never before. Never fond of the idea of statehood for D.C., with its almost guaranteed addition of two Democratic U.S. senators, Republicans are riding the Barry issue with open glee.
“Forget statehood for 30 years at least--it’ll take them that long to recover from this, and there’s not going to be any (appropriations) increase,” says Mark Robertson, aide to Rep. Stan Parris (R-Va.), ranking Republican on the District Committee.
“We’re not going to pour more money down a rat hole, that government is an absolutely incompetent mess. It’s Third World down there. He’s Baby Doc. Those people have got to enter the 20th Century,” Robertson says.
This sort of talk stirs people up, “down there.”
“The capital of a white nation was not designed for blacks to be in control,” thunders Calvin Rolark, a crusty, silvery-haired activist with the Black United Fund. “We call it a South African colony. Marion Barry is a victim (of the white ‘Plan’) to let the nation know we just aren’t ready for home rule.”
Rolark, who also publishes the black weekly the Washington Informer, is a good measure of the passions evoked by Marion Barry’s troubles in parts of this town. “Black people understand the nature of the beast! It’s the media, period. But the Post does not vote in this town. The People vote.
“And the masses of black people in this town respect Marion Barry! It’s history that he’s history. He’s alerted kids that you can come from public housing and rise to mayor of the nation’s capital, he’s been an excellent mayor! I don’t know any other U.S. city with more blacks in policy-making positions. He don’t just talk it, he lives it!”
Barry justifies the size of his bureaucracy on the grounds that D.C. government is more complex than any other city, combining local, county and state functions. “The mayor of Alexandria doesn’t have to worry about building freeways,” he tells a neighborhood group. “Being mayor of D.C. is harder than maybe any other job except President.” Otherwise, he blames Ronald Reagan Administration cutbacks, Republicans and congressional meddling for most of the city’s problems.
Beyond that, Barry is as defiant and blameless about governing as he is about drugs.
Why is the city under four court orders to clean up everything from mental hospitals to jails? “Mealy-mouthed liberal judges.” Why is so much of the city’s public housing still boarded up? “Bureaucrats, you know how bureaucrats are.”
Why does he send his son to a private school? “Personal and religious reasons.” Why does he even want this job? “A mission! Mission!”
And Barry only scoffs at the idea he is hurting statehood chances for D.C. “That’s just another red herring. They didn’t have statehood (before he became mayor) in ’78, did they?” he asks. “But, if I thought it would bring statehood, I’d resign tomorrow--and run for governor.”
From the sidelines, some of Marion Barry’s oldest, closest friends from SNCC days watch silently with varying degrees of anger and sadness. None seem surprised at the corner Barry has gotten himself into. It would have happened before, they say, if he hadn’t originally been surrounded by some tough-minded SNCC lieutenants who kept him in line.
“Marion is in trouble today for the very same qualities that made his charisma for this town 15 years ago,” says one friend, wistfully. “The Movement was a fast time. It spoiled a lot of us for all time. In those days, nothing was impossible. You always had a group of buddies and a fight, and all the optimism of youth. Now, they’re all gone. He’s alone. It’s such a hell of a beating he’s putting himself through. . . . “
“Marion’s always been a free spirit, he likes the ladies'-man image,” says Ivanhoe Donaldson, a former deputy mayor who was widely regarded as a dynamic force in Barry’s first term, until he went to prison for stealing $190,000 from the city. “But we’d get on his case, say: ‘Hey, Marion, we got work to do.’ Get him interested in other stuff. But now, we’re gone, he’s only got yes men around him, so. . . . “
Donaldson defends Barry’s record as mayor--but doesn’t think he should run again. “I think Marion’s bored,” he says. “And image is image. You don’t have to be a user to connect with the image. It’s bad for the city, for the youngsters. That’s reality.”
A Snub at Lunch
Given the standards Marion Barry is now imposing on himself, this has been a triumphant day--apart from lunch.
Barry chooses to dine at a downtown restaurant called Duke Ziebert’s, where the white Establishment--bankers, lawyers, consultants, businessmen--go to be seen, do business and glad-hand.
As he enters, a sea of pink faces glances up--then, almost as one, bobs back to the soup bowls as he passes by. Manicured male heads suddenly deep into conversations. Peeping at him over their shoulders when he isn’t looking. Smiling at each other. Whispering. Nobody in this florid, pin-striped frieze comes over to say hello to their mayor.
“See how quick they cleared this table for us?” Barry asks, confused, eyes darting about the room in search of at least one friendly face. “This is my regular table, I come here once a week,” he says gaily.
“Everybody in this room, all of them, makin’ money, ‘cause of me,” he says, snatching up a glass of wine. “Now, just look at ‘em. All just waitin’ to see what’s gonna happen.”
A band of small, rotund men in brown suits, most with shining pates, marches to the door, without so much as a glance in Barry’s direction. He watches them with interest. “They all look alike, don’t they,” he asks with a soft chuckle. They do.
“Republicans. All wanting to embarrass one black mayor. Ain’t that something?” he asks, a genuine note of curiosity somewhere there, amid the usual seething resentments. “Mayor Marion Barry,” he says softly, almost to himself. “I really must be something.”