Mayor Marion Barry arrives at JFK Memorial Hockey Field on an overcast Wednesday morning. He pulls up quickly, pops out of his Lincoln Town Car flanked by two security guards, and buttons up his double-breasted suit jacket. Barry, who has come to give a speech at the opening ceremony of the International Gay and Lesbian Football Association World Cup, walks quietly to midfield. The pickup game stops. Players finish stretching and schmoozing. The 150 people present form a circle around Barry; all eyes are on him. While the mayor manages to verbally bump and grind through a welcoming speech about AIDS, the district’s financial crisis, and D.C. as a gay mecca, the London and German teams whoop and holler as if he’s a celebrity on a talk show. With his five minutes up, Barry smiles broadly until he is stopped by Regis Rosetta, a soccer player from San Francisco. He asks Barry what will be the most important question of the mayor’s day: “Do you know ABBA?”
“I think so,” Barry says without missing a beat. He quickly shrugs off Rosetta and grabs a free coffee and T-shirt before heading back to his office and his scheduled “photo op with children to promote lead awareness.” Having been stripped of his governing powers, save overseeing tourism and recreation, Barry has been downsized into a role he was made for: master of ceremonies. Barry, the ultimate “situationist,” has a new assignment: a one-man Welcome Wagon, a well-dressed Kmart greeter with his own security force. Now Barry spends time answering questions about ABBA instead of Anacostia schools.
In a way, he is very ’90s: a politician in charge of nothing but his or her own celebrity. Congress has unwittingly dealt Barry a winning hand. Nobody gives a shit if he knows the inner workings of welfare reform. As substance and politics take increasingly separate roads, what better MC could we have? Could control board chairman Andrew Brimmer handle a day that would include a press conference to extend recreational activities and a courtesy visit with the City of Belfast Youth Orchestra? I don’t think so.
Now that he’s first on everyone’s ceremonial Rolodex, Barry has his role(s) down. For African-American groups, it’s the civil rights, kente-and-pinstripes African-American Barry. Attending playground openings, it’s Barry the jock and father. For the opening of “Prostate Cancer Awareness Month,” it’s Barry the survivor. At “Elderfest,” it’s Barry the senior citizen. Shaking hands with a roomful of securities professionals, it’s the go-go ’80s Barry.
“I don’t think his powers have been diminished at all. His presence is powerful,” says Larry Brown, spokesman for the Department of Recreation and Parks, who recently watched the mayor twist off a great one at Turkey Thicket Recreation Playground. That speech really moved Brown. “It was a confident speech….I didn’t get goosebumps, but there’s one thing Barry can do that a lot of leaders can’t do: He can show the way to tomorrow.”
Barry can still bend situations to his will. When the City of Belfast Youth Orchestra paid him a visit on Sept. 2, he demanded that they sing to himdespite the fact that it was an orchestra, not a choir. One girl finally chirped up to sing “I’m in the Mood for Love.” “The girl took it in stride,” remembers conductor Stanley Foreman. “He just laughed. He seemed to like it. We didn’t think it odd. You never know as a performer what you can be faced with. We took it as a bit of fun.” The mayor then passed out Barry key rings and pens.
Barry has grown into a mobile tourist attraction as both actor and acting mayor. Over the last month, he has been in high demand, appearing on CNN’s Talkback Live and G. Gordon Liddy, and in a cameo in the film Slam, as a judge. Since many of his operational duties have been unallotted, the mayor has time on his hands, and he has never been one to sit around.
“We thought that it would be easy for Barry because it’s during the day,” explains Patrick Grady, the World Cup’s local hospitality chair, adding later, “He’s good at ceremonies. Everybody is familiar with D.C. and our mayor. He can be very charismatic.”
Even hours afterward, Rosetta the ABBA freak is still juiced about meeting Barry. He gives Barry props for showing up even though “he can’t run again.” Wrong answer there, Mr. Swedepop. “There aren’t term limits?” Celebrities don’t have term limits.
His job description may have changed, but his timing hasn’tBarry is chronically late. And that old “Barrytime” begins to feel like a waste of time. As the attendees wait for Barry to make one of his patented entrances, the grumbling at a swearing-in for members of the Arts & Humanities Board and of the Redevelopment Land Agency is persistent and nowhere near as forgiving as in the bad old days.
The mood is equally grim on Thursday at George Washington University. Barry is scheduled to show up for a ribbon-cutting ceremony to christen a new dorm imaginatively called “New Hall.”
It does seem a weird setting for any mayoreven Celebrity Barry. It is, after all, a nondescript piece of student housing at a private school. Gwen Gibson, a university employee who works in the sign shop, stands outside sneaking cafeteria cookies. She’s practical. “He has a job to do just like everybody else,” she says. “Basically, that’s all he can handle right now. I think, given his past history on the job and how he handles things, he has to work on appearing that he’s doing something.”
The mood inside the makeshift, balloon-ornamented tent is equally rough. Barry arrives late, with the ceremony already under way. Barry gives his remarks comparing the city’s rebuilding efforts to New Hall. He mentions pothole repairs and gets away with it. Also arriving late, Councilmember Jack Evans uses the opportunity to nail Barry on his tardiness. “I was only practicing being mayor,” he explains, to the loudest applause of the morning.
Barry quickly leaves for a tour of a dorm room, stopping first at a study lounge. He talks up the students for a second, finds out not a one is from D.C., and quickly makes his way to the cookies and coffee. Barry bumps into contractor Gerry Sigal and asks if Sigal wants to go with him on an upcoming trip to Israel. Sigal asks, “Why are you going?” “To look at housing,” Barry says. Sigal declines to take the tripmaybe he knows the mayor isn’t in the housing business anymore.
With that, Barry is out of the building in a flash. At his next event, the American Association for Affirmative Action (AAAA) Leadership Conference luncheon at the Holiday Inn in Southwest, he arrives 45 minutes late, getting off on a very wrong foot at what should be a perfect event for the former SNCC chairman.
Waiting for Barry outside the dining room, Ruth Jones, president of AAAA and director of the equal opportunity office at Old Dominion University, says she booked Barry because he was in the middle of things during the heyday of the civil rights movement during the ’60s. She wanted Maxine Waters, scheduled the Rev. Walter Fauntroy, but is stuck with Barry. “He is a part of the historical legacy of civil rights,” she says. “He has his record.” Barry’s new role, she insists, is still political. “It’s a different kind of contribution,” she explains.
Barry finally walks in and digs into his salad. Once at the podium, Barry tries cheerleading. “I agreed to come to urge you to not give in, give up, or give out,” he opens, paraphrasing James Brown’s “get on up/get into it/get involved” rap. He brings up asphalt again. He ends with a parable, “The Little Engine That Could”: “It’s like that little train: I think I can, I think I canI know you can!”
His mastery shows best when he is between photo ops and press gigshe clearly likes ingress and egress. A picture of a man in a hurry, Barry can still get out of car while reading his notes. When he walks through a lobby with his security guards, he’s tough to miss. And upon his entering a room, the feeling is still pure big-band Mingus: nervous trumpets and piccolos and bassoons blaring full tilt. It’s all Barry the action figure.
The rest of it clearly doesn’t thrill him. Arriving more than an hour late at the dedication of the new Arthur Capper Recreation Center basketball court in Southeast, Barry must realize he has missed out on his one true opportunity to shine today. There were actual television cameras and a cheering cross-generational crowd in attendance. But his wife Cora Masters Barry, sportscaster George Michael, Wizards star Calbert Cheaney, and others have cut the ribbon because the mayor is running late.
When Barry shows up, people barely notice. The crowd has swarmed around Cheaney, who is ready to dunk the first basket. Barry moves a little girl aside with a right-hand check and heads straight for Cheaney, the rolling cameras, and a handshake. The moment where his political duties actually collide with his ceremonial ones ends up with the mayor almost getting dunked on. After saying a few words to Michael and kissing a few kids, Barry says a quick hi to his wife and heads for the hot dogs.
No one follows him. Cheaney is the true celebrity here. Barry finishes his hot dog, chucks the leftover bun to the ground, and is off to his next assignment.CP