We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Corrupt politicians are a dime a dozen. But every now and then one comes along whose behavior is so egregious, whose antics are so eye-popping that even introverts put down their books and sit up and take notice.
Such was a certain D.C. mayor back in the 1980s and ’90s—Marion Barry. Now, more than two years after his death, two very knowledgeable Washington insiders have written a novel about him. Capital City, by Lee Hurwitz and Tim Treanor, is hilarious and fast-paced, moving from a murder in the mayoral suite to the pursuit, up and down the East Coast, of a witness to that murder. There are press conferences, rigged bids, coke snorting, womanizing, and of course an FBI investigation.
In Capital City, D.C.’s famous African-American mayor is Wendell Watson, who, like Barry, isn’t an entirely unsympathetic character. In his quest for D.C. statehood, for instance, he approaches a friend, a Utah congressman, who tells him, “I would stand more of a chance of being reelected if I endorsed mandatory homosexual marriage with heroin-addicted communists than if I endorsed statehood for the District of Columbia.”
Bad as this mayor is, he does work for his constituents. But the African-American FBI agent who arrests Watson regards any publicity very negatively. To Treanor and Hurwitz, who make a walk-on appearance in the epilogue, the fictional agent says: “You two are enablers. And what you’re enabling is white bigots. The white bigots who say, yeah, that’s what happens when you give self-rule to Black people. That’s the sort of people they elect—corrupt drug addicts whose only interest is who they can screw.”
But the corruption depicted here—no-bid contracts, slush funds, nepotism, a revolving door between business and government, bribery, embezzlement—is pretty much the same whether its practitioners are white or black. As for the coke snorting, young Wall Street brokers were doing that in restaurant bathrooms every Friday and Saturday night back in the 1980s.
But then there’s the context of Capital City, in which the FBI agent believes the enormous publicity associated with the mayor’s criminality has a lot to do with him being a black mayor in the national spotlight. There have, of course, been white politicians of equal turpitude, but the agent believes they received less sensational press than D.C.’s notorious mayor.
Nevertheless, the authors portray Wendell Watson as a memorable character. “How did I get here?” The mayor wonders about his predicament. “And instantly he knew it was his weakness, not for women … but for bad people. He felt an instant attraction to and bond with the broken ones.” Watson may be a criminal, but like many felonious pols, he has complexity and depth—which ultimately doesn’t matter, of course, because everything he’s built comes crashing down around him.
Watson quotes Shakespeare compulsively. He has pulled himself up from a rough childhood in the infamous Pruitt-Igoe projects in St. Louis. And despite his excessive womanizing, he recognizes intelligence and talent in the women around him. But as for the really important things—political goals for his city or a better life for his constituents—we already know how the story ends. They get lost amid his disastrous fall.