We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
For years, the rest of the nation looked on in amazement as the electorate of Washington, D.C., showered its favors on a man who looks—from a distance—to be morally unqualified to run a city.
The American people can’t figure it out because they have never watched him do his thing. They haven’t seen the mayor duck and weave with the press mob right on his tail. They haven’t witnessed him confronting a room full of angry citizens, only to have their heads nodding in agreement 10 minutes later. They haven’t seen his late nights at the Vista…oh wait, there was that videotape. Still, against the backdrop of nerds and wonks who usually inhabit government, Mayor Marion Barry is incomparably cool. Heh-heh. Cool.
Wait a minute, I hear you saying, what about San Francisco’s Willie Brown? OK, Willie can talk more shit than a landlord on rent day, and yes, Italian suits are something to behold—and just you never mind that he knows how to run a government. But Barry is hipper than the Other Slick Willie because he is the ultimate sartorial situationist, moving from kente to Klein, often in the same day (which explains why he used to stop off at Roweshea Burruss’ house all the time).
And aren’t we forgetting Rudy Giuliani, a man who has brought new polish to the Apple and ruled over a seemingly intractable municipal bureaucracy? Fuhgedaboudit. Barry can do the macarena and the electric slide and still have enough energy to join visiting school children in a little double Dutch. If Giuliani tried to do the electric slide, his head would come flying off.
Kurt Schmoke? Get real. Being a Rhodes scholar has a lot of upsides, but being down is not one of them.
Marion is so cool that D.C. has become the city that can’t say no. He may fiddle while the city burns, but he dances a damn fine jig while he does it. Feckless patronage? No big thing when you got Marion’s swing. Lawlessness? Misdemeanor bullshit when you consider the kind of world-renown he has brought to the District. You can’t overestimate the charisma of a man who has sweet-talked a city into four separate terms in office.
The ceremonial mayoralty under the control board frames Barry’s skills perfectly, because even without portfolio Barry owns every room he enters. His shtick begins with a well-documented entrance protocol, which involves making a bunch of stiffs sit in a stuffy conference room waiting endlessly. They all pass the time the same way: “When is he coming? When will Barry get here?” Just when suspense is about to give way to rancor, the door swings wide and in he swoops. He doesn’t walk into a room, he strides in with a gait that is half preacher-heading-to-the-pulpit and half pimp-roll. Once he assumes a position, he can assess the mood of a room as quickly as any politician alive and begin feeding off it immediately.
Even though he’s 12-stepping instead of high-stepping, he maintains an implacable joie de vivre. He cuts ribbons and rugs with equal ferocity, not so much working an event as becoming it. In one-on-ones, his eyes have a validating capacity that other politicians would die for—curiously enough, it is his apparent sincerity that lingers long after he has gone on to the next person. Oftentimes, the next person will be a woman. The voice will drop down low, all Barry White honey, and there will be a short discussion about “Where you work?” and the like.
“Women love him because he has this air that says he couldn’t be bothered, but when he picks a woman out, it’s like, yeah, I couldn’t be bothered, but I could be bothered by you for a looooong time,” says Washingtonian’s Harry Jaffe. Barry is not some overegoed foot-worshiper. History has shown that Barry is a man about his business when it comes to women, taking the sexual energy he still radiates and putting it to his own ends whenever he damn well feels like it. It may not be pretty, but it’s certainly a brand of cool.
His seductiveness goes beyond the women he covets and extends to the city itself. Someone once said the difference between rape and ecstasy is salesmanship, and when it comes to making a pitch, what Barry says is far less important than how he says it. His semiotic gifts can make for a very dissonant experience: Hear him in person and marvel anew at his command of governance, politics, and himself; open up the paper the next day and be amazed at how little he actually said. Barry works the margins of communication overtime, full of gestural elegance. He has the hands of a gifted blues guitarist, fluid and expressive, never missing a note.
Not that he can’t talk. The man can go. At key points in his very checkered history, Barry has transformed very complicated events into phrases that could fit on a T-shirt—and often do. The feds snuck up on Barry, and what did he say? “Bitch set me up.” He shakes off six feet of dirt that was dumped on his political career and becomes mayor to abundant hand-wringing? “Get over it.” Congress busts a move on the prerogatives of municipal government? They become “pharaohs” on the Hill.
Marion’s mouth got it all started back in 1967. Officer Tommy Tague noticed a tall black man—a vision of ’60s cool in a white suit topped off with a Fu Manchu and a Panama hat—crossing against the light. When he and his partner began to stare hard, Barry slowed his strut and gave the cops his “bad” look. Tague rolled down his window and said, “Hey, you. Can’t you tell the color of a streetlight?”
“Fuck you and fuck the light, too.”
With those seven words, Barry became a totem of hipster defiance in D.C. He got the shit kicked out of him and thrown in jail, which absolutely made him. Barry has the ability to convert evil events, often of his own making, into opportunities. Never mind lemons and lemonades, this guy can take lemons and make perfectly chilled Dom Perignon.
Barry’s cool is not just the absence of fear, though there is that, but the Black Cool that borrows from Huey Newton and Marvin Gaye in equal measure. This is a man, after all, whose first wife aimed a gun at his head and threatened to blow his dick off. He ain’t afraid of nothing, nohow.
Present Barry with a shit sandwich and he will tie on a napkin and proceed to dine with such gusto you’d think it was foie gras. Barry can walk into a room full of reporters in possession of very dark facts about his behavior or his government and be the calmest person in the room by far. As WAMU political analyst Mark Plotkin puts it, “The explanation of the transgression is always better than the transgression. This is a very creative thinker.” Like the time he was nailed for consorting outside his marriage and said he was meeting with his son’s teachers. He said it with a straight face that demanded somebody in the room call him a stone liar. Nobody did.
Barry not only disarms his enemies, he enrolls them. What other mayor would have convinced Newt Gingrich to sweat it out under the lights of Eastern High? Barry is so anxious for face time with President Clinton because he knows he will win the day if he can just talk shit with Bill one on one. Who says you can’t bullshit a bullshitter?
Statehood activist Lawrence Guyot has noticed that Clinton and Barry have a lot in common. “Both are from the South, both have been counted out many times, both are libertines, and both can speak to any issue at the drop of a hat.” Potential mayoral opponent Carol Schwartz has met both and she gives the charisma edge to…Barry.
In fact, people who are baffled by the District’s blind fealty to Barry need look no further than Bill Clinton. Womanizer, deceiver, owner of no political theology that doesn’t begin and end with self-interest, Clinton would have a lot to talk about with Barry. Maybe they could share a nice long laugh about the ultimate triumph of style over substance. And then they could hit the city for a night. Wouldn’t that be cool?