Observing an anniversary in No. 727
I’m alone with some grainy ghosts.
It’s Jan. 18. Room 727. The Wyndham Washington D.C. The hotel formerly known as the Vista.
Ten years ago on this night, the room was a busier place. The cast of characters featured Marion S. Barry Jr., mayor of Washington, “Rasheeda” Moore, FBI informant, and—making a dramatic last-minute entry—agents from various federal and local law enforcement agencies. The props included a bottle of cognac, a pipe, several rocks of crack cocaine, and a pair of handcuffs.
Tonight, the cast of characters is somewhat smaller: me.
And the props are similarly less entertaining: a laptop computer, a VCR, and a decade-old videotape. That’s where the grainy ghosts come in. I’m watching them from a seat on the double bed—which is slightly to the left, now, of where the one on the tape was. That’s about the closest this version of Room 727 comes to the 727 from the videotape. Otherwise, the remade room in the remade hotel is a wholly new place. Just like the city outside.
The TV—which, on tape, flickers the face of John Tesh—has moved from the corner to the middle of the wall, just opposite me. The table from which Barry hoisted the incriminating narcotics is gone, replaced—’90s style—with a desk, complete with fax machine and swivel chair.
Still, 5 feet in front of me on the videotape, and 10 years behind us all, they’re pacing through the spectacle that riveted the District for a year and still hangs like a hotel carpet’s musty tobacco stench. And how could it not? Don’t say you can’t remember where you were.
The mayor, for his part, was in this room. He was relaxed and laughing, flirting with an old flame and drinking the drinks she poured. We all know what happened next: He looked for love, didn’t get any, and wound up at the end of a pipe—and, in short order, in handcuffs. He said the bitch set him up, the cops said it was bound to happen, and before you knew it he was being trundled off to FBI Headquarters and his political career was history. Or so we all assumed.
A small, weird part of me expects something to happen. I’m waiting for the knock. The evening’s ticking on, and though I’m neither the mayor of Washington nor a prize target of the FBI nor a possessor of crack cocaine, I’m still expecting it.
Not the feds, of course. They’re still busy chasing Barry and proving that every last “conspiracy theory” is true. Rather, I’m waiting for the mayor’s other 1990 nemesis—the press.
When I called to make the reservation, I was relieved that no one had beaten me to the most infamous room this side of the Watergate. And now that I’m in here—bouncing on the queen-sized mattress where Barry wanted to make love to Rasheeda, staring at the phone he used to make plans for later that night—I’m expecting my colleagues to barge their way in for a toast from the minibar to memorialize the day the municipal beat became a bad episode of Cops.
But the District’s press and political class—that Whoville-sized village that remembers every slight from Johnny Mack on down—seem to have forgotten the date and all the predictions that were made in the wake of it. When I look back on decade-old clippings—penned, for the most part, by reporters whose bylines I now see from Moscow or Seattle or Capitol Hill—what astonishes is just how wrong they were. “D.C. Political Landscape Is Shattered,” declared the Washington Post. The Washington City Paper briefly began calling Barry the “Mayor-for-the-Rest-of-the-Year.”
Ha! When Barry the Redeemed strutted back into office in 1995, the night they drove old Barry down lost its glowing spot, as date of infamy or date of reckoning, on the communal calendar. In the new historical narrative, in which D.C.’s hero travels from nobility, to hubris, to the fall, to the redemption, to the abject irrelevance of his second exit from office just a year ago, 1/18/90 simply marks the beginning of the end of Act 2.
Ah, but what an end it was! The mayor was busted on a Thursday. That Sunday, he was supposed to announce his candidacy for a fourth term. Instead, he left for rehab. He returned the next month, and old political allies spent the spring taking the knife to their old patron, jumping into the mayoral race he couldn’t enter, distancing, spinning, profiling. Meanwhile, old nighttime allies spent the season turning state’s evidence—which meant that by the time United States of America vs. Marion S. Barry, Jr. got under way that summer, the people had one nasty story to tell: a decade of bad chemicals and bad friends and bad promises recited slowly and painfully at the courthouse.
And to this day, for my money, few things say more about D.C.—even the demographically transitioning, reform-embracing, post-civil-rights-politicking D.C. of 2000—than the way we listened to that nasty story: weighing Jay Stephens’ white-boy sting against Barry’s Black Power cant, weighing the Republican U.S. Attorney’s arrogance against Barry’s hubris, weighing our wayward son against the feds’ neighborhood bully—and never minding how much bullying Barry had done in his own day.
A few months later, the jury—a misdemeanor conviction! on one lousy charge!—split the difference.
But a few years later, the voters, aided by an inept mayor and a mush-mouthed challenger, added their own verdict.
Even if no one’s paying attention anymore, the Barry bust was a seminal event. For one thing, it predicted the broader narrative that followed. Looked at in the context of current events, the arrest and trial are not isolated, midsized-Southern-city-with-a-lot-of-white-marble events.
You know what? Barry was right: The bitch did set him up.
And the feds were right, too: The mayor was guilty.
Not even three weeks into the ’90s, Room 727 was the stage for that central theme of the decade ahead. Call it “Guilty and Set Up.”
Think about it. Nearly every celebrated judicial imbroglio of the decade gone by revolved around guilty people grabbed in illicit ways. O.J. Simpson? Guilty and set up. Randy Weaver? Guilty and set up. Mumia Abu-Jamal? Guilty and set up. Bill Clinton? Guilty, for Christ’s sake, and set up.
Barry’s successors in the legal limelight had high-priced lawyers, political terrorists, and professional propagandists to make the point for him. But neither Johnnie Cochran in the L.A. courthouse nor Timothy McVeigh at the Murrah Building nor James Carville in the remainders pile at Barnes & Noble said it as true as the mayor of Washington said it, on a grainy old videotape shot right here in room 727: “Ain’t that a bitch.”
Today, none of the events that started in this room 10 years ago and fascinated the city for a year seem all that surprising.
Ken Starr’s political agenda doomed his case against the president? He should have talked to Jay Stephens. Those high-profile activists jetting to Mumia’s cell as his 1980s case became a 1990s spectacle? Nothing compared with Louis Farrakhan at the Barry trial. Those FBI guys who seemed so baffled that their endgame against white separatist Weaver commenced a blowback they are still weathering? Bet they never watched the tape of that swarm of mostly white cops taking down the mayor. Those pundits who seemed so shocked about O.J. Simpson’s durable constituency? It’s a good bet they never landed on Barry Beach.
And Bill Clinton, tugging at his lower lip, apologizing and pronouncing a new day in his personal Babylon? Just listen to how Barry profiles, a decade after the bust: “I think about how far I’ve come,” he says. “Ten years pass rapidly. I wake up every morning and thank God I’m clean and sober. Life is good.”
Translation: In America, when you’re a politician and you’re guilty and set up, you get to be mayor (or president) again, but people get to keep asking those infuriating questions, and you get to keep dolloping out the Cheez Whiz by way of an answer. At that, the man from Hope couldn’t touch the man from Itta Bena.
Watching the old tape loop through clips from what seems like every local news broadcast of 1990—Barry-arrest news abutting the push for Lithuanian independence, Barry-trial news followed by reports of activist Mitch Snyder’s suicide, Barry-verdict news bracketed by cheesy ads for drug-free school zones—I feel as if I’ve stepped back in time. If I tiptoe out onto the 7th-floor hallway, will I wind up in the era before Nirvana,
e-commerce, and Bill Clinton?
Should I have brought Public Enemy tapes with me? Re-memorized Dana Carvey routines? Bought crack?
Even now, any real Washingtonians could give me pointers on what they were doing that night. The where-were-you-when question is a staple of local lore. Journalists tell stories of frantic calls that interrupted an Arnie Becker monologue on L.A. Law, of mad dashes downtown to find that the excitement was all done. For me, it was a little less exciting. At the end of a night studying for 11th-grade winter exams, I came up to turn on the TV and found…well, you know what I found.
For what it’s worth, I was surprised. People had said he did drugs, but my high-schooler incarnation never believed it, mostly because I couldn’t believe that Barry would be that stupid. In school the next day, the white kids exulted: “Hey, man, we should have the prom at the Vista!” The black kids looked circumspect—I suspect more because of the frat-boy giddiness of their classmates than any feelings they may have had for the mayor.
The news-highlights videotape runs out after four hours. Back on regular TV, there’s no John Tesh nor L.A. Law. There’s just the 11:30 rerun of The Simpsons, which debuted four days before the Barry tape was shot. In Room 727, the past fades without a fellow visitor to mark the wacky anniversary. Maybe they’ve all gotten over it. CP