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Covering Mayor Marion Barry can be the opportunity of a lifetime or a journalistic gulag, depending on what you make of it. For the Washington Post’s Vanessa Williams, it’s been nothing but quicksand ever since she began covering Barry after arriving from the Philadelphia Inquirer over a year ago. Williams has shown a horizontal learning curve since Day 1, a fact that has endeared her to neither the mayor nor her editors at the Post. Her shortcomings shone most brightly in analysis pieces about the mayor’s political wherewithal, including a laughable suggestion that Barry’s indecision about ’98 had paralyzed other candidates. She recently came up with a nicely researched and written thinker on why the petition to recall the mayor is failing, but that may be her last hurrah on the Barry beat. “It was pretty obvious that she wasn’t working out,” said one Postie.

In what the Post is describing as a very routine game of musical chairs, Williams will be moving to cover the D.C. Council, and Vernon Loeb, another Inquirer alum, will be shadowing Hizzoner. Loeb’s ascension to one of the paper’s most visible beats recalls the ’80s, when a series of white males covered the various Barry administrations. Race aside, the change will no doubt enhance the paper’s coverage of the city’s most resourceful politician. Loeb exhibited tenacity in exposés on Capital City Mortgage’s practice of targeting the poor with high-interest loans and subsequently foreclosing, and the D.C. school system’s culture of cronyism—experiences that will no doubt come in handy in covering Barry. And Loeb’s take on the mayor jibes nicely with the Post’s editorial slant: “I don’t pretend to know much about him to start. He is an interesting, fascinating politician who obviously has huge credibility problems as a government manager right now.”

Ashley Halsey III, politics editor at the Post, denied that the change reflected poorly on Williams’ coverage of the mayor. “We reorganized the staff. It’s not really an uncommon thing,” says Halsey, another Inquirer exile. “We have an enormous amount of talent on our staff, and I’m just trying to create a situation where people can do their best work,” he suggests. When they were both at the Inquirer, Halsey served as deputy foreign editor and oversaw Loeb when he was the paper’s Southeast Asia correspondent.

In other Metro beat moves, Michael Powell will be covering the management of the city, and Hamil Harris will forgo council coverage to report about city agencies and what Halsey terms “quality of life” issues—Loeb’s old beat, more or less. Yolanda Woodlee, a reporter whose time covering the mayor did her a world of good—if you don’t count the enmity of Mrs. Cora Barry—will continue to roam freely. And of course, David Vise will still be in charge of polishing the apple at the control board.

One-Man Woodshed After a year of unmistakable indications that control board chair Andrew Brimmer’s imperiousness was a source of crippling friction on the five-member panel, Vise finally decided it was worth a story. But he apparently couldn’t bear to let others assail the good doctor, so he let Brimmer take himself out to the woodshed instead. In a story last week about the rift between Brimmer and his colleagues, Brimmer gets the first and last quote—and much of the play in between—even though the story came from others on the board who are tired of Brimmer’s tendency to proceed unilaterally. Vise credited Brimmer for “a new, more cooperative style he has developed in deference to the views of the other control board members”—a very nice way of saying that when Brimmer joined hands with Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.) in pushing for a city-manager form of government, his colleagues told him that he had lost his mind. Steve Harlan, Joyce Ladner, and other board members no doubt pointed out that the control board has enough problems in the District without assisting the Neanderthals on the Hill in tearing the arms and legs off home rule. Brimmer seemed to get the message even though he sent it himself. Vise wrote a story the next day about how new best friends Barry and Brimmer were up on the Hill making a joint pitch for the District’s budget. “Mayor Marion Barry, D.C. Council Acting Chairman Linda Cropp and financial control board Chairman Andrew F. Brimmer displayed cooperation and goodwill yesterday as they testified on Capitol Hill about their rival budgets for 1998,” suggested Vise’s lead. Problem solved.

Cross-Selling the Universe Joel Achenbach’s Sunday cover story in the Washington Post Magazine seemed to be mostly about how incredibly pretty deep space is, which is something anybody with a little pharmacological experience could have told him before he went to the trouble of all that research. But Lockheed Martin and TRW, two big fans of government-sponsored space research, liked it enough to chime in with full-page ads. Either the two space conglomerates have developed a sudden interest in casual Sunday readership, or they got tipped that there might be some synergy available in the issue containing Achenbach’s story.

Does the Wall Street Journal Know About This? How is the largest postwar economic boom seen through the lens of the Post, a paper pie-eyed on politics? “[S]ome fiscal experts are warning that the strong U.S. economy threatens to erase the deficit before Washington can claim credit for eliminating it,” read the lead in a front-page story about the burgeoning economy last week. “In what could prove to be a public relations nightmare for Democrats and Republicans…the economy’s sustained vigor has generated an unexpected surge in tax receipts that could wipe out the deficit as early as next year…” Only in the Post does an unprecedented economic renaissance become an occasion for missed political opportunities.

Holidazzle Last Tuesday, Washington Times reporter Vincent Morris wrote a blistering front-page story detailing the council’s whining and kvetching over the possibility that some hearings might be scheduled during its two-month recess. Morris, who recently poked holes in the city’s parking-meter contract, put a tidy hit on the part-time council—whose members rake in $80,000 a year—for refusing to do work during a critical period in the city’s history. And if the council has a sudden change of heart and schedules some meetings during the dog days of summer? “I guess I will be caught flat-footed,” says Morris, who will be on a two-week motorcycle tour in late August that will take him from Germany over the Alps to Italy. The council is finally scheduled to come back on Sept. 15. “I hope they don’t come early. I’ll probably have a little trouble phoning one in from the Alps,” says Morris, who is the sole occupant of the Times’ D.C. government bureau.—David Carr

E-mail Paper Trail at dcarr@washcp.com or call (202) 332-2100.