“On the streets he could act tough and dress casually. In boardrooms he spoke thoughtfully and wore fine suits.”
Like any aging political icon, Mayor Marion Barry frets over how history will treat him. And if the recently released version of City of Magnificent Intentions: A History of Washington, District of Columbia is any indication, he has nothing to worry about.
City is the first post-Vista history tome for students in D.C. public schools (DCPS), chronicling the city’s crime epidemic, its dysfunctional bureaucracy, the fall and rebirth of Barry, and the collapse of home rule. “Every ninth-grader in the District will get a textbook,” says Hiram Graham, president of Intac Inc., the book’s publisher. Judy Aaronson, a DCPS curriculum official, says teachers have been “waiting breathlessly” for the new City, an updated version of the first edition, which appeared in 1983 and hasn’t survived all the backpacks it has been thrown into. Nearly 3,000 copies700 pages eachwill land on scratched wooden desks across the city this month.
And they will forge views on the Barry years for at least a generation of D.C. pupils. If the second edition lasts as long as the gummy, frayed, and ball-point pen-scribbled original, Marc and Monique will be ferrying it to and from school until 2013.
Dr. Frances J. Powell, who won a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to create the first City and sat on the draft review committee for the second, says, “History should tell who should be blamed and who should be held to task.”
Except in D.C. Author Keith Melder says his first draft of the new City took a hard line against Barry, D.C. Council Chairman Dave Clarke, and others who presided over the District’s prolonged belly-flop. Then he submitted it to the text’s reviewers. “[They] felt that students need to understand and sympathize with the local situation, and that one should be sympathetic to the problems that the local leadership faces,” says Melder. Powell was among those who requested changes in the original. The idea, Powell says, was to make sure “the students know that the facts are not in” on the Barry years.
For a city whose elected leadersthrough mis-, mal-, and nonfeasancelost the power to administer their own government to judges and a control board, the civics lesson is all too familiar: accentuate the positive. The final chapter of City is history with blinders ona story of the city’s perennial politicians married to overused excuses and divorced from responsibility. Barry gets a free ride to his place in history.
“Like many American cities in the 1980s and 1990s, Washington experienced problems such as crime, unbalanced budgets, and a declining population.” Murder capital of the nation? Nation’s highest infant mortality rate? Nah, never heard of them.
After he bounced Kelly from office, Barry “found a city in crisis and facing bankruptcy….The mayor’s staff studied the accounts, they found poor records, more and more unpaid bills, and overspent budgets.” The good mayor must have been shocked!!
“The city paid too much, critics said, to Barry’s friends.” Doggone critics, always harping about something. See David Rivers, Cornelius Pitts, John Clyburn, and Roy Littlejohn.
“During the 1980s and 1990s, Washington experienced a series of crises that included an increase in violent crime, economic and financial problems, and troubled city services….Marion Barry dominated local politics for over two decades, serving four terms as mayor and guiding the programs of a liberal city administration.” That’s the closest City ever comes to linking city leaders to city problems, leaving ninth graders to connect the dots.
One-term Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly “succeeded briefly but…then faced difficult budget and management problems….[She] failed to make promised cuts in public employees or reform their management….Programs such as public housing and public assistance remained unchanged. Officials manipulated financial data to give the appearance of a balanced budget.” Ouch. City really knows how to stick it to a mayor.
“In the late 1980s the [D.C.] government work force had grown to more than 45,000 employees.” It just sort of blossomedyou know, of its own accord.
“Early in his administration, Mayor Barry cut the number of D.C. public workers from almost 35,000 to below 30,000.” Barry, avatar of fiscal restraint, jumps onto bureaucrats’ desks and slashes through red tape with a 3-foot saber.
Barry “tried to serve many different interest groups,” and “inspired people of many backgrounds.” Inspired? You mean inspired them to pack their bags and high-tail it for the District line?