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Who was Marion Barry, really? 2014 offered many chances to figure that out, but no one, including Barry himself, quite did.
Barry finally produced his own take on himself this year in the form of a memoir. With an eye towards legacy-building, Barry named the book Mayor for Life, after the nickname he once hated. Barry’s initial ambitions were even grander: He originally wanted to call it Marion Barry: A Badge of Courage.
The book looked to rehab a reputation that, outside of a few wards of the District, lay wrecked. Nationwide, he was most famous for being the crack-smoking mayor before Toronto’s Rob Ford. Even his most devoted supporters couldn’t claim his 12 years representing Ward 8 on the D.C. Council were an overwhelming success, after he managed to lose two committee chairmanships thanks to his own wrongdoing.
Barry’s attempt at building an image that would live on after his death—the 78-year-old former mayor had been in poor health for years—predictably elided his more embarrassing moments, including two censures from his Council colleagues. Forced to grapple with his crack-smoking arrest at the hands of the FBI, Barry stuck to his claim that it was all a setup.
The Washington Post called it not a tell-all, but a tell-enough. The omissions didn’t stop Barry from going on a national book tour that culminated in what would become a posthumously aired interview with Oprah.
If Barry had his chance to evaluate his legacy with his book, the rest of the District got theirs when Barry died of heart failure in November. His death had looked imminent for years, but now the District faced the still-surprising prospect of a future without the four-term mayor.
At first, it was all encomiums: flags at half-mast, a procession with police escort. Barry’s supporters launched an earnest, futile effort to get TMZ to apologize for calling Barry the District’s “crack mayor.” Vince Gray, looking to defend the man who endorsed his re-election campaign, wrote an op-ed for Time explaining to the rest of the country why Barry was beloved in his city.
But as Barry’s funeral approached, the tributes became as complicated as the former mayor himself. Carrying Barry’s casket to his church, the procession passed by empty storefronts in Ward 8, the poorest ward in the city that Barry tried, and often failed, to help.
Speaking to a half-empty hall at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center during the final memorial service, Christopher Barry said other family members helped him not feel his father’s absence from his life. Many speeches nodded gently at Barry’s misdeeds—the drugs, the women, the back taxes. The best ones, though, met them head-on. Sure, Barry was a sinner, they said, but who isn’t?
In the event’s most memorable speech, Louis Farrakhan asked the holy members of the audience to stand. Nearly everyone sat down. Barry, who at least knew his own failings some of the time, would have surely joined them.