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This world is emptier without Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. in it.
That was the way I referred to Hizzoner on first reference in hundreds of Loose Lips columns written between Feb. 7, 1986, and Jan. 8, 1999. In the nearly 16 years since that last column, Barry’s political turf shrank from citywide to the far Southeast corner of the District, but he continued to loom over all local politics and governance. No one has held such dominance in D.C. since Boss Shepherd more than a century earlier. No matter who sits in the mayor’s office, D.C. government continues to be populated by those who learned their art and craft through Barry.
He fully understood the power of the media, particularly television—which was becoming central to politics as he abandoned chemistry for civil rights activism and street theater—and how to manipulate it to his advantage. Initially an outsider in a city where outsiders used to be able to be considered Native Washingtonians after only a few years, Barry attracted the TV cameras, whether the issue was police brutality or Home Rule. He skillfully played to the media to become the city’s second elected mayor, shedding his dashiki for a business suit and straddling the racial divide by holding out promise to both white and black voters that he would build a government that would be a model to the nation.
But Barry quickly seemed to find it easier to abandon that pledge and instead firm up his political base among African-American voters by handing out the municipal jobs and services that a white-controlled, pre-Home Rule government had kept from them. He hung onto enough of his base among white voters by dishing out sole-source contracts and plum development projects to the downtown business community, which helped keep him in power. That choice made him a polarizing leader rather than one who could bridge the racial divide.
By the end of his first term, Barry’s “Dream Team” of deputies and managers were also falling prey to corruption and to the ravages of powder cocaine, which wouldn’t become affordable at the street level until the appearance of crack in the mid-1980s. As a result, Barry became surrounded by opportunists and hangers-on, many of whom profited from the association while he spiraled downward. (As I wrote often during those years, with friends like those, who needed enemas?)
By February 1986, with corruption in his administration spreading and cronyism and a bloated government hindering city services, Barry faced less-than-token opposition to re-election to a third term, which made the comparison to President-for-Life Jeane-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier in Haiti even more apropos: Duvalier was on the verge of being forced to flee his country, even though he, like Barry, had once seemed invincible. Four years later, Barry would be brought down, if only temporarily, by the FBI’s Vista Hotel sting.
That arrest led to one of the most remarkable displays of Barry’s brilliance in his entire career. With “the full weight of government” being thrown at him in his drug conspiracy trial, Barry launched a citywide tour of rallies to connect with residents who might end up in the jury pool.
In the end, the prosecution could only secure a misdemeanor conviction on one of 14 counts, which disappointed Barry—and enraged his foes—but certainly seemed like a victory.
Much of Barry’s success came from his strong belief that he could charm his most ardent critics into becoming allies. He tried that on me in hopes of getting rid of the Mayor-for-Life moniker. When that didn’t work, he resorted to being sullen, then to completely shunning me. I once wrote that the editors of church bulletins had a much better chance of getting an interview with Hizzoner than Loose Lips. That didn’t bother me, since I was trying to remain anonymous anyway, and never sought access, nor needed it. The final stage of our relationship was acceptance: Barry used “Mayor-for-Life” as the title of his memoir this summer.
While he believed in his supreme abilities to charm, Hizzoner did not shy from confronting his enemies, and he viewed the U.S. Attorney’s office as his greatest adversary. When then-U.S. Attorney Joseph di Genova was being interviewed once by Charlie Rose on CBS, the prosecutor learned that Barry was coming on the show right after him and tried to hide in the women’s dressing room. Barry sought him out and gave him a dressing-down for comments di Genova had made during a news conference that day discussing the investigation into corruption into the mayor’s administration.
Likewise, during his second term, Barry took control of the police department that had hounded him during his civil rights days by requiring that he sign off on every appointment to sergeant and above. The result was a corps of Barry-loyal officers who tried to keep him out of trouble during Hizzoner’s notorious “night owl” escapades.
Barry managed to transform his weakness among white voters into his source of strength among black voters. Even today, it is impossible to be in a meeting in D.C. without someone claiming: “Marion Barry gave me my first job,” or that Barry gave a first opportunity of employment to a family member. He gave to many people the aspirations that a job brings, and he brought services—or at least the promise of government services—to many who still feel alienated from their government.
In the end, though, he didn’t seem to have let anyone get close to him, perhaps because of past betrayals by those around him. And he betrayed the women in his life who could have been close to him with his adulterous affairs. Even his son appeared to keep a distance.
In death, Barry is getting the beatification of love and admiration, but the opportunists will soon be there again, trying to claim his mantle. It will be a long time before D.C. gets another leader like Marion Barry.
Ken Cummins wrote the Loose Lips column from July 7, 1983, to Jan. 8, 1999.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery