Instead of the Nixonesque political mantra of “four more years,” Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. returned to his political peak this week pleading for “four more hours” to deliver D.C. from its depths of despair and deterioration. Barry’s call for 10,000 District residents to devote four hours of volunteer service each week to saving the city was the only concrete proposal to come out of his two-day inaugural. But, as with most everything connected to Barry’s return, Hizzoner has not paused from his rhetorical figure-eights long enough to say how these 40,000 hours of weekly volunteer work would be channeled into concrete actions benefiting the city.
If Barry’s lavish third inaugural in 1987 amounted to his deification, this one could only be labeled the Second Coming. When he wasn’t pleading for volunteer help from citizens, and for the media and Congress to “help us and not hurt us,” Barry was wrapping himself in God and spirituality. Even right-wing Christian evangelist Pat Robertson didn’t invoke the Almighty in his 1988 ill-fated run for the presidency as often as Barry did in the past week.
Barry compared himself to the prophet Nehemiah saving ancient Jerusalem, and proclaimed himself an instrument of God sent back to save this city. When asked by Channel 9’s Bruce Johnson during Monday’s inaugural parade whether he was surprised by how quickly he managed to return to prominence after his drug conviction only four years earlier, Barry nonchalantly replied, “Not really. We knew that God had a plan and, working through me, worked the plan.”
Maybe that’s why Barry hasn’t been too specific about his own plans. God hasn’t given him the details yet.
At a free luncheon for 1,400 seniors last Sunday at the Omni Shoreham Hotel—courtesy of Bell Atlantic-D.C., which picked up the tab—Barry conceded he did not cloak himself in religion during his prior 12 years in the city’s top office. “I was all hung up about the separation of church and state. I should have known better. In the African-American community, the church is our state.”
After resolving the issue of separation of church and state, Barry came off the stage to dance the electric slide with a floor full of elderly but eager women. He has been performing the dance for years, including at a family gathering two nights after his January 1990 drug arrest at the Vista Hotel, and has renamed it “the Barry slide.”
Like the Second Coming, Barry’s return for a fourth term as mayor raised expectations of salvation and better times for many residents of this city. He used his inauguration to reinforce those hopes and spirits, repeatedly referring to his return as “the dawn of a new day,” and his upcoming but still largely unformed administration as “a new way of governing.” What will be new about it remains to be seen. The few appointments Barry has announced so far are mostly holdovers from the Kelly administration, which Barry denigrated on his return to power. Many of these same officials first came into government in prior Barry administrations.
Barry’s inaugural rhetoric was meant to present a picture of normalcy, even though these are not normal times for the District, and to calm fears about the future. The only thing “new” about this past inauguration day, as compared to the city’s four previous inaugurations, is that the city is broke. But Barry, always the masterful rhetorician, had a few phrases to reassure the multitude of skeptics. He guaranteed—yes, guaranteed—compassionate, efficient, honest, and responsive government. “You’re going to get a smiling face at the counter, a pleasant voice on the telephone, and someone who knows what they’re talking about,” he promised.
That could provide a shock too great for this city to bear.
The same old faces populating the next administration may be the result of Barry’s inattention to this detail. Those advising Hizzoner say Barry has not yet focused on finding the people he wants around him for the next four years. Instead, he focused on simply regaining the office he and many of his followers believe was wrested from him unjustly in 1990 by federal prosecutors bent on proving his much-rumored drug addiction. Monday’s inauguration was a moment of redemption for both Barry and his wife, Cora Masters Barry, who still bristles over the scrutiny she received from the media and federal prosecutors during her tenure as the city’s boxing commissioner.
Both beamed with the look of vindication as a nervous and over-eager Barry stood on the stage of the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) gymnasium and vowed to uphold the “office of mayor of the District of Columbia.” His forceful emphasis on the word “mayor” prompted a delighted cheer from the invitation-only audience.
After his swearing-in, outgoing Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly handed Barry the official seal of the District, an act that represents the transfer of power. Barry took a long look at it as though making certain it was the real thing. After working so hard to regain his old office, Barry was not about to let it somehow slip away again.
But he had already blundered once by the time he took the coveted oath. The law requires the new mayor to be sworn in at noon on Jan. 2. But it was 19 minutes after noon when D.C. Superior Court Chief Judge Eugene Hamilton administered the oath, which means that technically this is an illegal administration. But the law carries no penalty for failure to meet the noon deadline, so LL will leave that issue to the lawyers. The delay also meant that Kelly got to serve an extra 19 minutes beyond her term. But she didn’t do anything in that overtime period, as far as LL could tell; we had her under close observation at the UDC gym.
Cora Barry was beaming this weekend because she had helped her husband pass the first test of his new government: Putting on a fitting inaugural in austere times without the cost, especially the public cost, running out of control. Both Barry and Kelly’s prior inaugurals cost the taxpayers dearly. And if Barry had allowed this one to hit taxpayers’ pocketbooks, he’d have signaled the Republican-controlled Congress that he is not serious about curbing spending. D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton has been sounding the warning that any financial misstep by the new mayor could usher in congressional control, and she sounded that warning again just moments after Barry took the oath of office.
But Cora Barry was making certain that reporters knew she, as head of her husband’s inaugural committee, had kept costs down to a fraction of previous inaugurals by getting businesses to donate food, space, and equipment. “My tin cup worked,” she proclaimed at the seniors’ luncheon Sunday afternoon.
Many of the city’s finest restaurants donated ample amounts of food for Monday night’s inaugural ball at the D.C. Armory, more food than the smaller-than-expected crowd of around 2,000 seemed capable of eating. Chevy Chase FSB footed the bill for the Monday morning “Unity Ecumenical Prayer Breakfast” at the Sheraton Washington Hotel, which one speaker announced as the “Unity Economical Breakfast.” The misstatement seemed appropriate.
Inaugural Committee spokesman Nathan Clevenger estimated that “we spent less than $100,000 on all events, which is unbelievable.” Private donations will entirely cover that amount, Clevenger said. Cora Barry did not want to estimate the total cost until all bills are in. The public costs, such as using the Armory for the ball and UDC for the inauguration ceremony, were unknown as LL was penning this column.
Sitting in the audience for the swearing-in and maiden speech of the new/old mayor was Tom Davis, who would himself be sworn in as a freshman congressman two days later. Although a freshman, Davis is scheduled to be named chairman of the House D.C. Subcommittee. Davis’ selection to head the new subcommittee—which replaces the old, full House District of Columbia Committee, and which will decide the fate of home rule—has raised the hopes of local officials. Since Davis served as Fairfax County Board chairman before his election to Congress in November, he is regarded as a Republican who understands the District’s role as the center of the metropolitan region.
But when asked after Barry’s inauguration how much time the Republican Congress will give the mayor to get the city’s house in order, Davis quietly replied, “I don’t know.” That answer may prove to be an indication of how much power Davis will have, and that the real decisions about the District will be made by his more senior Republican colleagues.
But Davis was seen as an important and influential figure by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Instead of his usual spot onstage and in the TV camera’s eye, Jackson sat in the front row of the audience next to Davis during the swearing-in. But Jackson mounted the stage in time for the post-inauguration photo op. Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Sr. also managed to position himself on the UDC stage—and thus, in the background of news photographs and TV broadcasts.
This week’s inaugural was filled with ironies. For one, Barry devotes much rhetoric to his east-of-the-Anacostia River constituency. But the only inaugural event that took place east of the river was the Sunday morning church service at Barry’s church, Union Temple Baptist Church in Anacostia. That happens every Sunday.
Barry also continually promises to pay much more attention to the problems of the city’s youth in his next administration. But the inaugural event emphasizing youth was Monday’s parade, where young people were left standing in the bitter cold for hours awaiting their turn in the long, late-starting procession.
Barry also rode back into office on the reputation of being an outsider who would not sell out to the establishment. But those attending Monday night’s ball at the D.C. Armory were kept waiting for two-and-a-half hours while the Barrys partied across the street in RFK Stadium, hobnobbing with establishment types who had given at least $1,000 to defray inaugural costs. This reception was arranged despite the Inaugural Committee’s pledge of “no multitiered ticket prices” for the ball.
But the biggest irony came at the Monday morning unity prayer breakfast where the Rev. Willie F. Wilson, the flamboyant minister of Union Temple Baptist Church, was the featured speaker. In 1986, Wilson led menacing demonstrations against the Chinese owner of an Anacostia food carryout after a black customer claimed the owner had threatened her. At one point in the demonstrations, which lasted for weeks, the minister threatened to “cut off [the owner’s] head and roll it down the street.”
This week, Wilson was preaching racial and cultural harmony to nearly 2,000 clergy and members of Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim congregations. But his rambling 30-minute speech, which ran twice as long as scheduled, was often defiant and sometimes divisive, as he railed against “feeble, fake, phony ecumenical gatherings.” He told the assembled religious representatives that many of them “have become psychological, spiritual, philosophical, and intellectual masturbators,” a line he likes to use on unsuspecting audiences.
But Wilson, dressed in flowing African robes, talked mostly about himself. This event represented the culmination of his long quest for political prominence. Unable to penetrate Barry’s inner circle when Hizzoner held power before, Wilson backed Sharon Pratt Dixon at the start of the 1990 mayor’s race. But he jumped to John Ray a few months before the primary when it appeared that Dixon’s campaign was going nowhere. After Barry was arrested five years ago, Wilson rushed to his side.
In his sermon, Wilson said he was watching television in January 1990 “and the spirits spoke to me. And I said, I’ve got to get to Marion Barry within the next 24 hours or some harm is going to come to him. But I didn’t get to him in time.” The next thing he saw on his TV, Wilson said, was Barry being arrested in the Vista Hotel sting.
Now, he plans to meet with Barry weekly to advise the new/old mayor. With God and Wilson as his advisers, how can Barry go wrong?