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My plan for how Washington City Paper would cover Marion Barry’s death had been pretty simple, really: I didn’t need one. I obviously wouldn’t still be working here when it happened, because that would be years and years from now.
After all, D.C. without the mayor-for-life was unthinkable, so I didn’t think it’d ever come to pass. He’d been shot, arrested, overused drugs and booze, and elected to office (which can’t be good for your health) more or less every four years since the District got Home Rule, and he was still around. Love Barry or hate him—and a lot of people in D.C. did one or the other, if not both—but you couldn’t ever count him out.
I’d grown up in Rockville during the Barry era in District politics, in a family whose housing patterns looked familiar to a lot of white families with roots in D.C.: Great-grandparents had lived in Mount Pleasant, grandparents in Forest Hills, my folks long ensconced in the ’burbs. From outside the Beltway, Barry was still larger than life. The city’s decline had started with middle-class flight, both white and black, before he took office, but by the late ’80s, even liberal white observers seemed happy to put most of the District’s troubles directly on Barry’s shoulders. The Washington Post had been pursuing him relentlessly, as had the feds, and with that kind of validation, it was a lot easier to blame Barry for the city’s poverty and crime than it was to think about any of the deeper structural causes at work.
So when Barry was arrested in a federal sting in 1990, I watched the news, transfixed. Looking back now, I’d like to pretend I was able to recognize the barely hidden racial subtext behind how the area’s white establishment reacted to the bust, but in reality, I was like any other oblivious 13-year-old suburban kid, excited to see what seemed—obviously—to be the end of his story play out in real time.
That wasn’t anywhere near the end of Barry’s story, of course. And everything that came after it only underscored the difference between the Barry D.C. knew and the Barry the rest of the country thought it knew well enough to joke about.
When he returned, triumphant, to the mayoralty in 1994, Barry’s message for anyone upset he was back was blunt: “Get over it.” And 20 years later, here in D.C., it almost feels like people finally did just that. By the time he died this week, Barry had settled into an elder statesman role in local politics (even endorsing a former antagonist from this newspaper when she ran for an at-large seat on the D.C. Council this fall). Losing candidates in the last two mayoral elections tried, but failed, to use him as a bogeyman to scare up white votes. Nothing Barry did late in his career really seemed to tarnish his image, or at least not anywhere near as much as it would have done with mortal politicians.
For City Paper, it’s particularly disorienting to confront a Barry-less D.C.: We started publishing in 1981, when he was already halfway through his first term as mayor. We’ve invited some former Loose Lips writers, an editor, and a former political adversary of Barry’s to reminisce about him here. (And you’ve probably already scrolled through Darrow Montgomery‘s photos.)
Now that he’s gone, the District will have to wait and see who occupies some of the space Barry filled in local culture, lore, and campaigns—the rogue, yes, but also the voice for the poor; the machine politician doling out patronage jobs, but also the would-be one-man economic development program. In a city that’s growing rapidly (thanks still, in part, to real estate deals Barry brokered when he was mayor), he was the fixed point. But not anymore. And D.C. may not yet realize quite how much we’ll all miss him.