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When he hit the microphone Monday afternoon, Marion Barry did a most un-Barrylike thing. Not that he was downbeat, or dull. He rounded up the usual notes—his good fortune, God’s grace, youth, age, violence, drugs, money, change, hope, responsibility—but also admitted feeling nervous. With his suit and his tie and his unsmirking acknowledgment of anxiety, the Mayor-for-Life suggested a scientist who has landed the big grant—except that now he has to cure cancer.
Marion Barry has been a politician for so long that the salient goal of his early life is understandably obscure. But that goal—a doctorate in chemistry—helps explain the man who has become D.C.’s mayor for the fourth time.
What do chemists do? They tinker with known compounds and combine elements in innovative arrangements to produce surprising solutions. They trigger reactions, sometimes benign, sometimes violent, to achieve heretofore undiscovered aims. One experiment may unleash chaos; another may impose order.
In the social laboratory that is Washington, D.C., Marion Barry is the politician as chemist: a relentless experimenter, a user of tried and true formulae, ever ready to enhance the efficacy of old admixtures, always prepared to abandon that which obviously no longer works for that which might.
And what of chemicals themselves? They are ubiquitous but invisible, showing only their effects, their byproducts, their effluents. Just so Marion Barry. His achievements and his faux pas are writ large enough that to the naked eye they loom overpoweringly, but his persuasive skills, his gift for making connections, his ability to tease from disaster the threads of renaissance—all these exist in a microscopic, even subatomic stratum. With his capacity for bonding, for potentiation, for precipitation, for catalysis, Marion Barry is the politician as chemical.
Call him Barrynium (“Barrium” being more evocative of enemas than enigmas)—the element that never meets an interest group or an issue for which it cannot develop an affinity. An inherently stable substance—though dangerously volatile during the ’80s—Barrynium has obtained political success where it counts most, forming bonds with one voter, one organizer, one financial backer at a time. And when the time comes to dissolve those bonds and find new receptors, to move on to new configurations, to achieve new syntheses, the chemical mayor does so with consummate ease.
Barry’s chemistry connection is buried deep in a history astonishingly long and dense for a man of 58 whose main claim to fame is being the ineradicable mayor of a medium-size city. Thanks to the notoriety of his last term, no mayor of the modern era has accumulated so vast a collection of press clips.
Clips, hell: Barry’s adventures, mis- and otherwise, have brought about books—1991’s Marion Barry: The Politics of Race, ground out in eight months by Jonathan I.Z. Agronsky in the wake of the mayor’s arrest and trial for cocaine possession, and 1994’s Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, D.C., in which Harry S. Jaffe and Tom Sherwood dissected the capital’s political infrastructure at a more leisurely and effective distance. Plus uncounted investigative reports, editorials, opinion essays, critical analyses, features, rodomontades, and screeds pro and con the once and future Mayor-for-Life.
The ebb of the city-as-political-power-base—we are all conurbanites now—relegates mayoral greatness to the past tense, except for Marion Barry. Chicago had Daley. New York had Gentleman Jim and the Little Flower. But we have Barry, who is alive and seemingly well, and whose life chimes most resonantly with that of Boston’s James Michael Curley.
Curley, who started his career with a minor court conviction, rose to power and prominence on the singularity of his American-Irish will to put a thumb in the eye of his city’s Brahmin ruling class. He won re-election from the slammer, inspired Edwin O’Connor to write The Last Hurrah, and eventually was dubbed the Rascal King by a biographer. During his prime, before the New Deal substituted the federal government for the political boss as a dispenser of public largesse, Curley existed in Boston as a pervasive gas inhabiting the very air and extant in solid substances like an electrical charge. In kindred manner, Barry is everywhere in D.C., all-encompassing, granitically inexplicable to his enemies and implicitly comprehensible to his allies.
So why, with Barry retaking the helm of the ship he sent careening onto the rocks, with his effusion of promises to hold a steady course and a true one until his adopted city is once again in a safe harbor, with his ecstatic insistence that he is the only one capable of accomplishing the task—and, even before he retook office, offering concrete evidence that he might be able to do so—should anyone want to delve into Marion Barry’s past and Marion Barry’s inside workings?
It has all been said before, anyway, and the man himself is talking only of today. In fact, he can barely bring himself to remain in the present tense, preferring to swerve into the future perfect passive, with its assumptions of accomplishment—what will have been done in ’96 and what will have been done in ’97 and, God or Allah or whoever willing, what will have been done in ’98.
Why in the name of all that is proper and fair, then, should we hold up Marion Barry’s life like Yorick’s skull to examine it in minute detail, scrutinizing crack and crevice, flaw and fullness, depression and expansion?
Because, alas, for all the many ways in which we do not know him, we knew him well then and we know him all too well now.
We know that at the end of Barry’s last three terms, the horror was not that he’d been out of control for so long but that he’d been in control for so long and had not accomplished anything near what he’d promised, or what was believed. There were glimmers of jobs and shimmers of improvement in public housing, but they evaporated like ether in a spoon; the boards that Barry said he’d take off never came all the way down. There were sops of minority contract here and scraps of profit-taking cash there, but by and large they went to Barry’s buds and their buds, to the Jeffrey Cohens and the Oliver Carrs, to the Bill Fitzgeralds and the Jeff Mitchells, not to the little people the mayor claims to love so dearly, hoisting aloft the gleam of their intransigent faith like an imitation Oscar.
We know that the city and its once-again-new mayor maintain a deep and twisted codependency. D.C. needs Marion Barry to prove that we can elect whomever we want whenever we want and nobody nohow is going to tell us who runs our show. Marion Barry needs D.C. because it’s the only pond where he’s the big frog, and he needs to be the big frog with a frightening intensity. People need to believe in Marion Barry because there’s nothing else left, and Marion Barry needs to believe he can save the city for the same reason. The double helix of mutually reinforcing delusion twists around the relationship like strands of DNA.
We know that, unless his constituents stay on him, Marion Barry will not stand and deliver. We know that Marion Barry is at his best when he is up against the wall. We know that this time he has built the wall, has served as the Daedalus who created a labyrinth of problems within the greater maze to be negotiated in the running of any American city. The tangle of dilemmas that Barry wrought and those that he inherits constitutes a puzzle whose difficulty and complexity will test even his protean powers of manipulation and accommodation.
We know that unless we keep him focused narrowly on what he has to do this year, this month, this week, this day, this morning, this hour, Marion Barry will slack off, will fritter, will skitter. We know, as Cora Masters Barry knows, as former and current Barry associates know, as even a skimmer of headlines knows, that this music man only keeps to the tune if someone holds the sheet up in front of his face and makes him play the notes as written.
It’s not a matter of money corruption. Marion Barry is not in this for the dough-re-mi. Sure, he wears a nice suit. He can buy a porterhouse (although his newly slim profile suggests he’s been tending toward wheat germ). But unless he’s banking with Baby Doc’s financial adviser, he hasn’t gotten rich the way Curley did, with both front hooves in the till and the municipal crews making improvements on the 20-room mansion he built with graft from contractors grateful for Boston’s business. Marion Barry just wants to run Washington, D.C. And he is going to do that until the city expires beneath him like Gen. Custer’s pony.
He is living testimony to the Nixonian axiom that the press cannot kill a politician. A politician is not susceptible to murder, only suicide, which is what Barry practically committed a couple of years ago, and, if the temptations of the flesh prove overpowering, still could commit, may already have committed. (Cora keeps him on a taut leash, but on the street they’re already talking about how his eyebrows work sideways when a well-turned ankle trots past. In somber whispers, even his detractors voice hope that when he was trolling the deep waters in his Barry Satyricon phase he didn’t hook any of that HIV-positive tuna.)
For now, however, Marion Barry seems to have moved beyond certain of those temptations, as well as that most fatal of attractions, the lure of the loafing life. At an age when most men are easing up a notch or two, trying to save some knee gristle for the golf course, hoping the ticker holds out for threescore and 12 or 13, he is leaning into the cold winds that blow around a city full of violent death, wretched poverty, stunted childhood, warped ambition, and endless possibilities for him to stumble and fall.
But Barry is unstoppable. He’s the Undead Mayor, the Vampire Prince—except that vampires can’t work days, and Marion Barry can. And at night, while you’re home sleeping the sleep of the just, knitting the raveled brow of care, seeking the peace that surpasseth all understanding, he is out there somewhere on the road with a notebook and a list of names and a cellular phone, figuring out how to beat you seven ways to Sunday. He is the running man, still running after 40 years on the track. He has to keep running the way a shark has to keep swimming; otherwise, it dies. Otherwise, he dies. There is no life outside office, away from the warm lights and the suffusing attention.
How does he do it? How does Marion Barry do that Marion Barry thing?
Not with oratory. Barry is no Daniel O’Connell. Hell, he isn’t even Richard Daley, who could mangle the language as if he’d had a blood transfusion from Mrs. Malaprop. Save for occasional bursts of brilliance like “Jesse don’t wanna run nothin’ but his mouth!”—a crisp example of Barry at his extemporaneous best—the mayor gives awful microphone.
Remember the shank of election night last November? For several hours, Carol Schwartz had lent a tingle to the proceedings with an initially strong vote count. The candidates were neck-and-neck. If you squinted at the tote boards, it was Schwartz, no it was Barry, no it was Schwartz, but finally the Marionettes prevailed, and sighs of varying import rose skyward around the city.
When Barry arrived at his victory party, he had a deservedly rambunctious crowd in person and, thanks to live coverage by all the area television stations, a captive electronic audience around the city. From Spring Valley to the Anacostia Highlands, people were eager to participate in a moment that, whether they desired it or dreaded it, was sure to be electric.
Then the man opened his yap.
Sounding like the “before” example in an infomercial for the Demosthenes Institute for Oratorical Excellence, Barry delivered a rambling exegesis that had no beginning, no middle, no end. Instead of displaying exactitude in triumph, he mumbled. He muttered. He mushed words around in his mouth like overcooked vegetables.
As the minutes piled up and the excitement ran out, the folks crammed around him on the dais stood firm, cheering and gesticulating at the appropriate signals. However, in contrast to their gestures, their faces began to reflect a certain stoicism, like that of high-school seniors in a second-semester physics lab session, struggling to avoid the living death of standing sleep.
On and on Barry roamed, hollow phrases and unfinished sentences littering the lectern and deadening the airwaves. One by one, the TV stations winked away in hopes of salvaging what few viewers might not have succumbed to the mayor-elect’s conspiracy with Morpheus. When the last station finally switched to other election coverage, Barry was still going.
But one man’s mumble is another man’s meat. In his garble, Barry the extraordinary pol manages to sound like an ordinary guy trying to think on his feet and, in an appealing manner, not doing all that great a job of it. As Marlon Brando’s halting delivery of lines in a movie holds fans’ allegiance, Barry’s lackluster oratory endears him to many more people than it alienates. Though he acquired his street manners by tutorial as a fledgling D.C. resident—in the early days, according to his biographers, he still bore traces of the Southern college-man style, until homeboy friends and acquaintances schooled him in the funkier folkways of Chocolate City—he is anything but what Henry Louis Gates Jr. has called “the hypercorrecting Negro.”
Marion Barry isn’t Negro anything anymore. His success flows from internalizing the transition from slave to colored to Negro to black to African-American. If Huey Long’s slogan was “Every Man a King,” Marion Barry’s should be “Every Man a Recovered African Prince.”
Whatever core there is to Marion Barry, it is racial. Nothing has shaped him so dramatically as his negritude, which is a negritude genuinely black. Marion Barry is black like Marcus Garvey, black like James Brown—not the coal-mine-at-midnight aubergine of the African-born, but still not remotely a candidate for the paper-bag test that the establishment, white and black, still applies to men and women of color who aspire to positions of power outside the ballot box. Those overly endowed with melanin may submit artistic or academic achievement or accumulation of wealth for extra credit, but the color line remains visible.
Barry is a Race Man, has been since he was old enough to spit in the dishes he carried to the redneck vets sitting at the tables on his station in the dining room of an American Legion post in Memphis. Eventually it dawned on him that serving spat-in food to white folks was still serving white folks, and he moved on, determined to serve his people and his own self. That has remained his credo, although not necessarily in that order.
The tradition of the Race Man is as old as the African-American race. A Race Man—or Race Woman—is a person of color for whom blackness is a constant call to action, a permanent full-time job, a vocation.
No matter how light and bright he may be, a Race Man revels in his blackness, flaunts it, flies it like a flag, stands tall on top of it, and says, “I may be right or I may be wrong, but I’m black and I’m a man and you have to deal with me.”
Or, in the modern lexicon, “Get over it.”
A long with forging his identity, race has been Marion Barry’s tool for good and for ill. He played relentlessly on black power while he was building his image as an organizer in latter-’60s D.C. When the city’s black middle class seemed likely to tilt against him in his first mayoral election, however, he positioned himself as the builder of a transracial, multiculti coalition—and won the day. But at the end of the ’80s, with the wolves of the press and the prosecutor’s office closing in, race came out of Barry’s back pocket like a box-cutter, ugly but utilitarian. In the last two years, he scarcely sheathed the blade on his march into a Ward 8 council seat over a shellshocked Wilhelmina Rolark and then into the mayor’s office over the scrappy Schwartz.
But, like good looks and family connections, the race card is good for only so many moves down the board. After that, there had better be sound methods, or the game is up. And Marion Barry’s methods remain as questionable as ever.
For example, his pyramid-scheme approach to government remains in evidence. On Dec. 9, he unfurled a grand $431-million scheme to cut the budget in time to persuade Wall Street to bankroll the city. The next day, he and his janizaries had to admit that, well, perhaps they’d double-counted a couple of categories and been overly optimistic about city worker unions’ enthusiasm for concessions on salaries and benefits.
Barry quickly regrouped, collaborating with council Chair Dave Clarke and Mayor-for-Four-Years Sharon Pratt Kelly to arrange emergency bridge loans from Wall Street. Between Barry’s and the council’s efforts at budget slashing, the city may stave off receivership for a while—though, given the recent record, we are more likely to enjoy a sideshow of salami-hiding rather than genuine economizing.
On Dec. 23, 1994, for example, Barry and his fellow wizards of finance on the council claimed to have assembled $250 million in “cuts.” However, the fine print redistributed funds so that the net effort was a zero reduction in D.C. outlays. Is this any way to run a city?
Let’s face facts: Call it Murder City, call it Fat City, call it anything you want except late for supper, but D.C. is still the seat of national government. Is it so difficult to envision a scenario in which, encouraged and abetted by the Federal City Council and the Board of Trade, those situationists supreme, Marion Barry and Newt Gingrich, cannot come to mutually agreeable, if presently indistinct, terms whereby the city puts on a show of controlling its expenses and Congress finds a way to cover the nut?
Maybe the Contract With America will be the medium. You want bootstrapping?, Marion might say to Newt. I got your bootstrapping. Sure, we didn’t land one of those empowerment zone grants, but let’s see if we can’t concoct ourselves a little experiment in local empowerment. We’re not gonna throw a whole lot of money around—just enough to prime the pump, get the gears turning, move the cogs and cams a little.
And Newt, who did not serve his ailing wife divorce papers during a chemo session so he could become the Speaker of the District of Columbia, who views himself as a man on horseback come to save America, might be willing to start by saving that portion of the nation inside the District line.
However, even if the stars conspire and the Barry magic works, the lessons of the phony millions and the shell-game council reductions should not be forgot, because they underline a basic rule for living in the District of Columbia: Hubristic or humiliated, soaring or sinking, on the make or on the rebound, Marion Barry, after all these years, is still Marion Barry, and whatever Marion Barry says is not to be fully believed. If the man decrees that the sun rises in the east, get up before daybreak and dust off your compass.
Of course, some Washingtonians—including Barry himself—would hesitate to doubt him if he claimed that the sun rises on the far side of the Potomac. Like any confidence artist, the incoming mayor is his own best customer, fervently believing what he says at the moment that he speaks. In the present tense, Marion Barry is as serious as a heart attack about whatever palaver he is pushing, but as soon as the present is past, all bets are off.
Barry was not an overnight convert to the First Church of Whatever Is Happening at This Very Instant. He’s belonged all his life. When it was appropriate for a poor colored youth to strive after the status of Eagle Scout and National Honor Society membership, he was on the case. When colored people were about through being Negroes and about to start becoming black, and the Movement called for volunteers on the front lines of voter registration in Mississippi, he answered, front and center. When Angry Young Black Men achieved fashion, no one had a rounder Afro, a more sinister Fu Manchu, a more highly polished 20mm shell amulet, a faster fist into the air at a rally. When the time came to doff the dashiki and talk turkey with the establishment, no one got into a suit faster or talked more turkey than Marion Barry. He is the man. He has been there, he has suffered.
From his experiences, good and bad, he has woven a kente cloth tapestry of African-American advancement, triumph, precipitous decline, resurrection. As a toddler, he accompanied his mother on the migrant cotton-picking circuit through Mississippi and Arkansas. In childhood, he stoked the wood stove that heated his family’s shotgun house. At school, he would sell his sandwiches, preferring hunger to empty pockets. He was a skinny kid, tall for his age, awkward. He was on the outside looking in. And he remains the outsider, operating at a distance from everyone except the one person he is talking to at the moment.
That’s how it is when you try to focus in tight on Marion Barry. You read the books, you watch the news, you digest the articles in the paper and the magazines, you riffle through the clips, maybe you see the man up close at a parade, and no matter what, the effect is the same: Marion Barry is always there and yet he is not there, allowing you to grip his essence just for a second and then he’s gone, on to the next hearing, the next press conference, the next campaign appearance, the next church service, the next emergency run to Wall Street bankers for a dose of dollars to cure what ails the city, the next headbanging session with Abe Pollin to re-groove the downtown arena deal more to the city’s benefit.
Sometimes he melds all those things into one moment, as he did one night last September. Rejoicing in the primary victory that marked the penultimate step in his relentless stride to redemption, Barry leaned into the microphone and croaked a few lines of a spiritual: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.”
Amazing grace—and Jay Stephens. Any of us as far down into the deep end of the rock ‘n’ Remy pool as he’d been snorkeling should enjoy so costly and official an exercise in what the 12-steppers call “confrontation.”
In a confrontation, relatives and friends of someone drowning in booze ambush that hapless soul and admit their anguish. Reading from scripts or tearing the words off the walls of their hearts, they force the partying party to peel back the scabs and callus to confront raw, bleeding truths—the pain inflicted, the damage done, the prospects trashed, the love stolen and wasted—testifying even to their complicity in the process in an effort to persuade friend or father or brother or son to abandon his preferred poison and begin the hard haul back up the hill to recovery.
If what was visited on Marion Barry at the Vista Hotel and in court during 1990 wasn’t an extended version of a classic confrontation, what is?
Of course, Marion Barry is a hard case. This was not his first experience with the experience. Several times during the ’80s—a decade that saw Barry soar like Icarus in the sun of a downtown development boom before the city’s economy and his wax wings melted—members of his inner circle corralled him to explain in bitter detail why he should stop with the cognac and stop with the Bolivian marching powder and for God’s sake stop letting your Johnson do all your thinking for you, Marion. It’s a shame and an embarrassment. You go around telling folks your body is a temple and down with dope, up with hope. Which fool you think you’re fooling, fool?
You’re right, the mayor would say, wide shoulders sagging slightly in his expensive suit, face momentarily grim and shadowed. I’ve got to straighten up and fly right. Then he would climb back aboard his big blue automotive ship of state for another midnight run at the heart of darkness. And he kept on running until he ran into Rasheeda Moore that January night.
And the fact of the matter is, he never did stop running. He’s been running since his feet hit the clay in Itta Bena and then the concrete in Memphis. What is the pursuit of the Eagle rank in the Boy Scouts but a political campaign—and what was Marion Barry but one of the youngest Eagle Scouts in the nation, never mind being a black Eagle in Jim Crow country?
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Running, running, running. Maybe it came from being the lone son in a household of sisters and stepsisters, and the only manchild in a cobbled-together family where his natural father died young by violent and mysterious means and his stepfather punched the clock seven days a week at a meatpacking plant, leaving little time for his wife’s boy. Maybe it came from being uprooted out of the Delta gumbo and relocated to the streets and alleys of Memphis. (Another son of Mississippi transplanted to that Tennessee town also ran to remarkable heights but fell harder and more permanently—if those stinking federales had decided they had to bust Elvis at any cost, the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll might be alive.)
The running at first and for a long time was not away, but toward, and not running for the sake of running, but running in harness to something practical. At Booker T. Washington High, where the yearbook was The Warrior, Marion S. Barry Jr., a member of the National Honor Society, was tagged “Smartest Boy” in the Class of 1954. But while he was making A’s, he also was making plans for an apprenticeship in the most metaphorical of trades.
He would become a plasterer, a builder of walls connecting rooms, a shaper of forms, a creator of smooth surfaces later to be covered by paint or wallpaper or, when the cracks get too wide or the joints become too uneven or the finish gets too squalid, cheap paneling.
Of course, before plaster can be smooth, it has to be rough, and Marion Barry has been as rough as he has needed to be. He has been unnecessarily so in the bedroom, according to a series of women who over the years have accused him of assault physical and sexual. And he has been unnecessarily so on the hustings, according to whites who over the years have accused him of using race as a desperate and cynical means of hanging onto power he didn’t deserve to keep in 1986 and playing it again in 1994 as a calculated part of his return to that power.
Nice and rough, as Tina would say. Derailed from the plastering life first into a dayhop education at LeMoyne College in Memphis and later the live-away life at Fisk University in Nashville, Barry, whose middle initial had always been a Trumanesque cipher, filled in the blank with “Shepilov”—the moniker of a Soviet propagandist—perhaps on a dare from one of his brothers at Alpha Phi Alpha, perhaps, as he later claimed, on a whim while reading the newspaper.
But whimsy was not much evident in the young man who won election to the student council, belonged to the campus unit of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and came back late at night from the Porter Street party zone to grind more books through his brain. Not until senior year at LeMoyne did Marion Shepilov Barry Jr. begin stepping out—and when he did, it was in high style, picking a scrap with a college trustee who’d slagged the civil rights movement in general and in particular the NAACP, of whose college chapter Barry was now president. In a letter vibrant with rage, he demanded the trustee’s resignation, earning a jolt of news coverage and an invitation from NAACP Executive Director Roy Wilkins to address 3,000 people at a South Memphis meeting. At 22, about to receive his undergraduate degree in chemistry, Marion Barry stood at the podium in the glow of the lights and the applause of the crowd and felt the future warm his face like a flashbulb.
That fall he left home for Nashville and Fisk, a black school where the Movement was gathering momentum. He helped organize an NAACP chapter, absorbed at a distance the lessons being taught by MLK in Alabama and more closely at hand those offered by James Lawson, who ran workshops on Gandhian nonviolent noncooperation as a tool of social change. It was a fast two years from workshops on campus to sit-ins at Woolworth’s and Marion Barry’s first arrest—John Lewis, who is now in Congress, was with him that day, cigarette butts andketchup in their hair courtesy of harassing onlookers, who walked away free while the sitters-in were busted for disorderly conduct—then to meetings of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the 1960 founding of the Temporary Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), whose first chairman became…Marion S. Barry Jr.
(The leading candidate was ChicagoanDiane Nash, also of the Nashville delegation, but her gender—SNCC was notoriously male chauvinist—her Northernness, and Barry’s buttonholing skills aced the job for him.)
The “temporary” in SNCC’s name was soon gone, and so was Chairman Barry. He only headed SNCC for seven months, during which he honed his organizing skills and with his allies in Nashville desegregated six downtown lunch counters. At the Democratic and Republican National Conventions that summer, he addressed the platform committees, demanding an end to segregation in public schools, legislative extension of civil rights to blacks, and…self-government for the District of Columbia.
In September, though, still the practical fellow with his eyes on more than one prize, he took a teaching assistantship in chemistry at the University of Kansas. He was back in the Volunteer State within the year, this time enrolled at the state university in Knoxville—for three years the lone black student in its chem department—and teaching part-time. He married Blantie Evans, but that union was doomed by his inevitable immersion in activism.
At first it was seasonal work—when classes let out, he would join the other SNCCers in Mississippi, registering voters and organizing nonviolence workshops in places like McComb in mean old Pike County. Come fall, he would return to Knoxville for the autumn offensive on the books and the lunch counters. He lived a bifurcate existence, on one level engaged in purely intellectual pursuit, on another operating in regions where only his limbic system could help him. It would prove good practice.
Within two years, he and Blantie were splitsville. No doubt it did not help that in the heat of those Mississippi summers more was kindled among the caseworkers and student volunteers—and sometimes between SNCC men and lawmen’s women, according to Barry’s biographers—than ardor for equal justice under the law.
By 1964, again a bachelor, Barry had finished his coursework, with only a dissertation between him and a Ph.D. That summer’s SNCC strategy was a frontal assault on Mississippi, with no quarter expected and none granted as the organization flooded the state with white liberal college students like Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who along with black colleague James Chaney gave the last full measure of brotherly devotion—a month after Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. In tragedy, opportunity: SNCC worked the mailing lists and in a few months raised $600,000. Barry began riding the circuit of coastal and Midwestern cities to pump up the donations and arrange support for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s bid to oust that state’s established—and lily-white—delegation when the donkey party convened in Atlantic City.
The Freedom Party effort failed, but the exercise helped clarify Marion Barry’s life for him. Dissertation or no dissertation, he quit school and went SNCC full-time.
Organize, organize, organize. He was getting good at it—so good that big SNCC stick James Forman detailed him to Manhattan, where instead of getting shot at and firebombed by crackers he scheduled parties for sympathetic Jews and other liberals, a stalking horse for the radical chic of later years. He learned how to play well-intentioned white folks like so many pale kazoos.
And when, in June 1965, Forman sent him to D.C. for SNCC’s first experiment in applying its organizing principles in the city rather than the countryside, he was ready to begin a complicated 30-year arc of a career in which it is difficult, if not impossible, to separate the sometimes conflicting, sometimes complementary strands of community-interest activism, brazen self-aggrandizement, empowerment of the dispossessed, naked oligarchy-building, noble uplifting of the race, and accommodationist weaseling that make up Marion S. Barry Jr.
On Jan. 24, 1966, seven months after hitting town, Barry performed his first experiment in catalytic reaction: He organized what he called a “mancott”—a one-day boycott of O. Roy Chalk’s D.C. Transit bus system. The idea was to protest a nickel hike in the bus fare to 25 cents, and to galvanize local activism in a city accustomed to national demonstrations but remarkably reluctant to raise a ruckus on its own account.
Barry and his band of volunteers kept 75,000 riders off the buses for a day, momentarily discomfiting Chalk and raising welts of headline. The fare increase was withdrawn only temporarily, but Barry’s name and face became a permanent part of the District’s political landscape. A month later, he and his new friends uncorked the Free D.C. Movement, another short-lived, high-profile campaign whose longest-term impact was on Marion Barry’s Q rating.
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss—and yet, each time he is encountered, he is a changed man, a strange man, a mystery to his critics, a magnet for his enemies, an enigma to his friends.
Marion Barry, who has never encountered an axiom he could not violate, has never contemplated a lie he could not utter with absolute belief, has never made a profound enemy he didn’t believe he could make into a friend, has never been blindsided by a truth he could not ignore, has never seduced a voting bloc he could not dump from his lap like a pregnant girlfriend, is that oldest of American types—the self-remade man. The human free-radical of Washington politics adopts whatever molecular configuration works, whether it is close to his own or more congruent to the fears, loathings, or ambitions of others. He is the hero of a couple of dozen faces.
Never mind that his ancestors arrived as chattel on the Middle Passage. Never mind that his family chopped cotton where the Southern crosses the Dog. Never mind that he came up fast and slick doing a double-time shuffle, public and private, which finally sent him into stir—and may have saved his sorry life, may have put him on a permanent path of righteousness, may have scoured him of rascality to the point that he can live up to the mountain of promises he stacked to win re-election as mayor.
Marion Barry’s first rise ended in tragedy. Unless he is very, very careful and very, very lucky, his second will end in farce. The good news is, Barry is at his best when he is tilting at an entrenched enemy who controls the official arena.
The bad news is, Marion Barry built the stadium.
In D.C., M.B. is once again the man to see, and everyone for miles around is wondering if the brown-eyed handsome man who ran the city to the rim of destruction can pull off his latest adventure in soul sculpture: the rehabilitation of MarionShepilov Barry Jr., as performed by the former inmate himself under the direction of the lovely, talented, and hard-as-nails Cora Masters Barry, with the nation’s capital as his stage and the city government as his rehearsal hall.
For a town whose transformation Barry oversaw in the ’80s and whose spiritual and economic disintegration in the ’90s is part of his legacy, the stakes are massive; not since Boss Shepherd toppled in the 19th century has Washington been so close to a federal takeover and reorganization.
If Barry cannot hire a cadre of immensely talented underlings willing to work themselves to the bone for salaries only slightly higher than the city’s fatter law firms pay their starting associates, if he cannot liposuction a morbidly obese government, if he cannot curb crime, if he cannot combine moral suasion and the mandate of law to wean thousands from the dole, if he cannot reform the school system and the police force and the health programs and the rest, D.C., already ripe for radical surgery by a Republican-dominated Congress hungry to count coup against a town whose name is synonymous in the home-district hinterlands with Democrat-driven corruption and Great Society welfare stateism, will cease to exist as we have known it since 1974.
But the opposite could happen. Barry, who presided over D.C.’s near-collapse, could preside over Washington’s semi-renascence. He could, in the parlance of Mark Helprin’s fantasy novel A Winter’s Tale, become the Sable Mayor of D.C., seasoned by tribulation into a benevolent manager, able to brush aside the petty concerns of self and instead concentrate on the Zen of government—vide his artful twisting of the Pollin elbow so that Abe was happy to crow about dropping $180 mil on the new downtown arena where he once was down for half that.
If Marion Barry can cause scenes like that to play regularly through the next four years, the credit will go not only to his prodigious skills but to the famous Barry luck, which has carried its owner through nearly two score years of peril, self-inflicted and otherwise. His rise and fall and rise again have been the result of hard work, but they also have been the result of great good fortune—some of it adventitious, some orchestrated by his own hand, to wit:
Timing Is EverythingIn 1961, at the end of SNCC’s first effort at voter registration, Barry finished running a workshop on nonviolence in McComb, Miss., and left town. Soon after, the remaining SNCC workers in McComb were beaten and a local black who’d helped them was shot dead.
That Wasn’t Protection, That Was LiberationIn 1966, prosecutors were ready to indict Barry for racketeering—D.C. business owners claimed his Free D.C. campaign tried to extort money in the guise of political “donations”—but the intended targets would not press charges.
The Wirtz That Could HappenIn 1967, Barry met Rufus “Catfish” Mayfield, who would play Friday to Barry’s Robinson Crusoe as the Tennessean attempted to learn the ways of Washington street life. When Labor Secretary Willard Wirtz spoke in Southeast that summer, Barry confronted the Cabinet member; afterward, he spoke privately and conciliatorily with Wirtz, a contact that led to the formation of Youth Pride Inc., a watershed community program headed by Barry, Mayfield, and Mary Treadwell, who would later become Barry’s second wife.
Dashiki Man Goes Raleigh HaberdasherIn 1971, recruited by dissident school board members and allies such as Thornton Page, Barry ran against board Chair Anita Allen. Page schooled his protégé in middle-class diction and vocabulary, persuading him to swap his leopard-skin dashiki for a suit and the term “pig” for “police officer.” Page also weaned Barry from a pet term: “motherfucker.” In the election, the newly smooth Barry stomped Allen, winning 58 percent of the vote in a four-way race.
Playing the AnglesIn 1974, school board Chair Barry switched his vote to back the appointment of Barbara Sizemore as superintendent over main man Ivanhoe Donaldson’s uncle. That fall, when Barry ran for at-large D.C. councilmember, the Sizemore shift—and the network of grass-roots supporters and operatives Barry had begun to build block by block around the city—helped him win the race. On the council, he chaired the finance committee, showing a chemist’s knack for developing functional fiscal formulae.
Night Owl MovesThroughout his adulthood, Barry’s sex life has stirred comment and complaint. In 1964, according to Jaffe and Sherwood, a white female SNCC staffer accused Barry of sexual assault. The issue was aired at an in-house executive committee meeting but shelved when Barry opted to join SNCC’s campaign in the cities of the North. In 1976, outraged at Barry’s chronic philandering, Treadwell parked the barrel of a pistol at her husband’s temple as a means of suggesting that he keep his trouser trout in the home pool. (Barry called his attorney, Herbert O. Reid, who calmed Treadwell. On other occasions—once when Barry was the one to be disarmed—friend David Eaton served as peacemaker.) During the 1978 mayoral campaign, reports of sexual assault by Barry were investigated by the Washington Post, which spiked the story for lack of corroborating sources.
It’s All Right, Ma, I’m Only BleedingIn 1977, during a siege of the District Building by members of the Hanafi Muslim sect, an attacker fired two shotgun blasts. They struck a WHUR-FM reporter and…Marion Barry. Two inches lower and the slug would have hit Barry’s heart; instead, he was left with only a flesh wound. The young newsman died.
It’s All Right, Ma, I’m Only ChippingBy now a habitual Casanova, Barry closed the ’70s by acquiring a rumored reputation as a cocaine user. U.S. authorities and reporters periodically pursued leads, but the self-protective instincts that kept Barry out of trouble in Mississippi were just as useful in the nation’s capital.
It’s All Right, Ma, I’m Only Letting MyOpponents Sap One Another’s LimitedStrengths So I Can Win By a Hair’s BreadthIn 1978, Barry ran for mayor as the upstart in a three-way Democratic primary contest against incumbent Walter Washington and Council Chairman Sterling Tucker, both pillars of old black D.C. Backed by gays, liberal whites, and the black underclass, and endorsed by the Post against the wishes of Publisher Katharine Graham, Barry polled 31,265 to Tucker’s 29,909 and Washington’s 28,286. Fewer than 90,000 Washingtonians cast ballots; if 1,500 of them had gone another way, Barry would have lost the primary. In the November general election, he won in a landslide against black Republican Arthur Fletcher, who accused his opponent of shilling for the white establishment.
Timing Is Everything, Cont’dDuring 1979-85, investors and developers dumped money into D.C. like farmers piling manure on a compost heap. A beat-up hotel at the corner of 14th and Porno sold for $900,000 in 1979; packaged with a couple of other parcels, for $12 million in 1985; expanded slightly yet again, for $39 million in 1987. And that was only one property in a lush environment for municipal growth. As Barry and his team cut and balanced the budget, eliminating much of a $400-million deficit left by the Washington administration, tax revenues began to double, then double again.
Timing Is Everything IIIIn 1979, Post revelations about Treadwell’s mismanagement of Pride Inc., the youth opportunity program she and Barry had co-founded, led to Treadwell’s indictment, eventual guilty plea, and three-year jail term on federal charges of fraud totaling $600,000. Barry testified before the grand jury that indicted Treadwell, but emerged untouched. (After Treadwell had served her time, Barry appointed her to the parole board.)
It’s Good to Be MayorWhen his first term was starting, Marion and Effi Barry were found to have accepted a sweetheart mortgage loan at sub-market rates from Independence Federal Savings & Loan, which conveniently had made Mrs. Barry a director of its board despite her paucity of banking experience.
Son of Timing Is EverythingAs the Carter-era recession hit in earnest, the flywheel effect of development-driven tax revenues helped camouflage the impact on D.C. government finances of rising inflation, a persistent deficit, and radically increased hiring.
And Just When Did Your Police CareerSeem to End, Inspector?At Christmas 1981, Barry graced a strip club party on 14th Street NW. There was talk afterward of under-the-table mayoral blowjobs and tabletop mayoral coke snorting. A Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) inspector reported same to the FBI, which referred the matter back to MPD, which transferred the inspector to night shift work.
What Are Back-Door Friends For?In 1984, convicted cocaine dealer Karen Johnson, a longtime Barry mistress and one of the mayor’s drug suppliers, went to jail for eight months rather than reveal details of their relationship.
I’m Shocked, Shocked to Learn ThatEmbezzlement Goes on HereIn 1985, Barry confidant and Deputy Mayor Ivanhoe Donaldson pleaded guilty to federal charges of embezzlement and tax evasion. He’d stolen $190,000 from the city, and was sentenced to a maximum of seven years in prison and $127,500 in fines. Barry denied any knowledge of his close friend’s finagling, as he did when David Rivers and Alphonse Hill resigned under fire for fiscal misprision.
My Mind Is a Temple (But My BodyIs a Bus Station Restroom)In January 1987, following Barry’s third inaugural, he was enjoying the Super Bowl afterglow and getting loaded in L.A.—drinking and probably drugging in between bouts of bedroom athleticism with a few close personal friends, he had trouble breathing and was hospitalized—while D.C. endured a paralyzing blizzard. Though the negative press was intense, Barry’s status as theTeflon mayor continued to hold.
It’s Good to Be Mayor, Cont’dIn 1989, D.C. cops about to arrest coke dealer and Barry running buddy Charles Lewis at a downtown Ramada Inn were pulled off the bust when the mayor unexpectedly arrived for a tête-à-tête.
But finally Marion Barry had his greatest piece of good luck. On Jan. 12, 1990, authorities he’d dodged for a decade snapped shut the doors of a trap they’d built especially for the wayward but elusive mayor.
Normally, a cocaine possession bust would not loom prominently on anyone’s list of fortunate experiences. But for Marion Barry, his season of ignominy had numerous beneficial side effects.
For one thing, the arrest may have saved his life. Had the government not finally achieved its long-sought goal of catching the mayor in midtoke, Barry—who by that point already had been treated several times for overdoses—easily could have come to a Belushoid end, stroked out in some cheeseball hotel room or twitching like a gaffed fish in the back of a Lincoln, pants at halfstaff and eyes bugging like hard-boiled eggs.
And, just as was so in the ’60s, getting arrested was a good career move for Marion Barry.
At first shocked glance, the FBI videotape of the mayor lighting up and sucking down a hit of crack inspired revulsion for any leader who could sink so depravedly low.
Over the long haul, though, Barry’s habit came to suggest not lotus-chomping indulgence by an imperial politician awallow in the perquisites of power, but the pitiable self-anesthesia of a desperate man driven spastic by job stress and midlife crisis. In another era, the boss man’s drug of choice would have been alcohol, as it was for Chicago’s Richard Daley in 1959. Neck-deep in a second-term police scandal that threatened to unravel his machine, Daley began slurping scotch at a rate far in excess of his usual sip. Extrapolate the equation from the tempora and mores of Chicago in the ’50s to D.C. in the ’90s, and it is easy to transform Dick Daley at the bar to Marion Barry on the pipe.
The image of a leader getting loaded was not a pretty one, but neither was it an alien one, especially in a city full of ’60s survivors who had tasted the whole menu of forbidden fruit and current-day hardscrabblers in whose midst the drug economy flourished. On Capitol Hill, hotshots like Al Gore and Newt Gingrich could acknowledge having enjoyed the occasional youthful buzz. In the barren wastelands of far Northeast and Southeast, illicit drugs dulled the hopelessness and infused cash into neighborhoods otherwise bereft of commerce. Against this scrim, Barry’s potbellied video snapshot hardly raises a ripple.
He was charged and booked and indicted and tried. He was offered a deal: resign from office and the charges go away. But Marion Barry hadn’t clawed his way out of a Memphis railroad flat, hadn’t paid his dues in the Delta and on the streets of D.C., hadn’t developed into an expert organizer, hadn’t built a city machine from scratch, to take a deal. Call it denial, call it bravado, call it hardheaded political calculation, but he figured if he went to trial he could beat the rap.
And he did, thanks to attorney Kenneth Mundy and a jury amenable to the notion of nullification—in which jurors tell the court, “Yes, the evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of a guilty verdict, but we are not going to provide that verdict.”
For Barry and his supporters, the arrest became a hypocritical state’s attempt at politicolegal assassination that fueled the next phase of his protean career: his revival. His departure from office in 1991, his rejection by voters from whom he sought an at-large council seat, even the dissolution of his marriage to Effi, all drove home the wisdom of being lucky. If Barry had engineered a fourth term in a row, he and not his hapless successor would have been the one gagging on the bilious excess that accumulated during his 12 years in office. If Effi, who made no pretense of trying to control Marion Barry, hadn’t walked, Barry couldn’t have wed the redoubtable Cora Masters in a marriage that might be seen with no insult intended as a reprise of Barry’s union with Treadwell. Both women—each a powerful and demonstrably black personality with her own political agenda—have insisted that he walk the narrow line, to his benefit and the city’s.
Instead of having to fight the man in the mirror, Barry could lay off, slim down, plot a comeback. What was the title of Nixon’s book, Six Crises? Hell, he’d been through more than that—60, 6,000. How many crises have there been in Marion Barry’s life—how many days you got? If Nixon could slug his way back from the Watergate, Marion Barry could survive the Vista.
And he did. Now all he has to do is survive his success. He must lead his city out of financial morass, lead the people who elected him out of their delusions about him and about themselves, and lead his opponents to accept the need to aid him in accomplishing both tasks. If ever there were a job for that universal chemical component Barrynium, this is it. And if ever there were a time to tell the Marion Barry story, it is now.
The reason we insist on hearing a good story again and again is that we learn something new every time it is told. Jack on the beanstalk, Charles Darnay on the gibbet, Huck on the raft, Yossarian in the bomb bay—each retelling, each rereading, each re-examination of a classic character delivers a dose of renewed hope or renewed cynicism, never mind that scarcest and most educational of commodities, a moment of transcendent entertainment.
The Marion Barry Story fits that requirement because he is that perfect great character: a man in conflict with himself but not content to keep his conflicts to himself. He is growing up in public, as he has been for decades, a jangling bundle of neurons engaged for 35 years in the roil of life and the marketplace of political discourse. Not for him the gnat’s existence of a Jesse Jackson, buzzing at the periphery of the action—Marion Barry is a working dog, doomed to exult in heavy lifting, even if his main burdens are the reputation that he manufactured for himself and the muddle into which he cast our city.
And he is a big-enough dog to sustain legions and generations of literary ticks, whether they fix on matters Freudian (the wounded son searching for father figures while he raises his own motherless child), deconstructionist (Barry as Everypol), or comic-bookish (“Look Out, Fiscal Evildoers, Barryman Has Come to Save the Day!”). Not all great lessons come from great moral figures. We learn more from Ahab than from Ishmael, more from Iago than from Othello, more from flawed Peter and even more flawed Judas than from Jesus.
What do we talk about when we talk about Marion Barry? We talk about the wavering line between empowerment and oligarchy, we talk about the slippery slopes of immediate gratification, we talk about the warring impulses of altruism and self-interest.
What do we see when we see Marion Barry? Myself, I see a man alone, seated at a desk in a large, well-appointed room. There is a crowd of people outside. The door and its wooden frame conduct noise: the chitter of entitlement, the chatter of opportunism, shouts of anger, and sudden eruptions of laughter. The man in the room hears his name called many times, in many varying tones, and with many different inflections. He stands and goes to the door. He takes the shiny brass knob in his right hand and turns it. The lock mechanism makes a loud click, and the noise stops. He pushes the door open a crack, encounters no resistance, lets it swing on its hinges until it rests against the wall. He swivels his head left to right taking in the crowd, seeing all ages, all races, all faces looking at him as he looks at them. A spark of connection leaps the gap between him and each of the people. Then he reaches for the door and pulls it closed. Again the silence, again the click, and the noise returns. He sits back down at the desk.
Though told and retold and retold yet again, the saga of Marion Barry—not only what the moving finger has writ, but what it yet will write—deserves a form that expands beyond the necessary constraints of journalism and history to put words to truths inaccessible through mere data.
To enable a skeptical world to fully appreciate Marion Barry, someone has to make him up, to reinvent him on the page the way he has reinvented himself in life. Marion Barry, who is his own finest creation, deserves to be a creature of literature.
It’s been done before. Jack Beatty brilliantly chronicled the life and times of Boston’s legendary boss in The Rascal King, but Edwin O’Connor’s The Last Hurrah remains the definitive treatment of James Michael Curley. In Huey Long, T. Harry Williams explained the phenomenon of the Louisiana leader, but it was Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men that nailed old Huey’s pelt to the cabin wall.
Someone must do the same for Barry. Who will it be? Surely not a white guy from Ward 3 like your humble correspondent. Marion Barry should have his soul X-rayed by a doctor familiar in the bones and heart with his condition.
Skip Gates, are you ready to suspend your chairmanship of Harvard’s Afro-American studies department to study a monumental Afro-American for a few years and produce not a fabulous exercise in personal history like Colored People but an exercise in fable about a colored person who has made history?
John Edgar Wideman—can you set aside the facts of your father’s absense, and your son’s and your brother’s murderous lives to engage in an act of imagination?
Walter Mosley—how about giving up the mysteries of L.A. for the mysteries of D.C.?
Or perhaps the mind best able to mine the rich vein of Marion Barry’s life has roots closer to home.
Edward P. Jones: A novel of D.C. family life in the Age of Barry? David Nicholson: What would you say to laying off the book reviews and aiming that razory nib of yours Barryward? Jonetta Rose Barras: You’re a poet and you know it: How about a Homeric epic on that most Ulyssean of D.C. figures? David Mills, the scriptwriter’s life may be sweet, but won’t you please crawl out your Hollywood window and take a chance on making the words dance where people will notice the steps and cadences instead of fast-forwarding to the car chase?
Juan Williams, you nailed the emperor of Barrytown nearly a decade ago in a diamantine Washington Monthly article; surely you’d be tempted to go a few rounds with his fictive alter ego? Nathan McCall, you were brave enough to tell hard and ugly tales on yourself in Makes Me Wanna Holler—couldn’t you wrap those brass knuckles around the meaty life of our Mayor-for-Life? Malcolm Gladwell, you made Jesse Jackson mad when you roughed up the Rev. Al; think how steamed he’d get if you directed your gaze at his eternal friend and nemesis!
But if no one else will take up the literary gauntlet flung down by Marion Barry, we must look to the man himself for the narrative, which, by and by, he will provide. After all, he’s been making it up as he goes along for years. It’s too late to stop now.
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.