Washington City Paper asked several former Loose Lips writers and editors to send their recollections of Marion Barry over the years. This is from Jack Shafer, City Paper‘s editor from 1985 to 1995.
When covering Marion Barry, many journalists have written themselves into the scenes with him not just because it made for good copy, but because his megalomania enhanced theirs. To be in Barry’s proximity could be better than drinking the elixir of life. Even writers who were offended by Barry’s methods and practices would report back that while in his presence he roused in them rare emotions and passions. Crossing swords with Barry or sharing a dance with him was unforgettably intense. His charisma did not flow from great acts of public oratory or a Clintonian wink, bashful grin, and handshake: What Barry had until the day he died was unbreakable confidence, which steered him from poverty to academic accomplishment (a masters in chemistry from Fisk University), from the civil-rights movement to community organizing in Washington, and finally into the halls of power at the District Building.
Barry’s temporary fall, following his drug bust at the Vista Hotel and his short stay in the federal prison in Loretto, Pa., in the winter of 1991-92, was an aberration, one that he was able capitalize upon to rebuild his political career by running for the Ward 8 D.C. Council seat two months after he got home. As David Plotz wrote in these pages in his Sept. 10, 1993, feature “The Resurrection of Marion Barry,” the charismatic politician who has come to define Washington to the world beat four-term incumbent Wilhelmina Rolark so completely he recorded three times as many votes as she in her home precinct.
Like other ethnic politicians before him, Barry knew how to extend his base—the poor, city government employees, and the young—and connect with other sources of power. As mayor, he befriended and supported the real estate and development community. He seduced and rewarded the city’s government employee unions. He made common cause with the gay community and gained the support of Ward 3’s wealthy white liberals. When encountering bitter enemies, he would tell them, “I’m going to win you over.” And charmer that he was, nine times out of ten, he would.
Barryism—the policies of tax, spend, hire new government employees, and elect—failed in 1994, when the city found itself somewhere close to a billion dollars in the hole, depending on how you counted the pennies. Barry hadn’t run up all the debts, of course. The Council and Barry’s successor as mayor, Sharon Pratt Kelly, were accomplished Barryists, too. When he returned as mayor in 1995, not even his charisma could level the leaky ship of state, and the District was soon forced to surrender authority to a financial control board created by Congress. As one of the founders of the Home Rule movement, Barry could rightly say he was present at the creation of a democratic D.C. As mayor when the city lost its checkbook to the federal government, he could also say he was in charge at its end.
Barry’s charisma did not blind him to the fact that the city would never regain home rule as long as remained mayor, so he declined to run again in 1998. A couple of years later, he returned to the Council. He remained an advocate for his ward but became better known for his non-payment of taxes, for new chapters in his history with illicit drugs and alcohol, and for his erratic motoring skills, including speeding tickets and a car crash. The former mayor-for-life who had first reduced himself to a punchline for late-night TV drug jokes had become an elderly clown.
Yet he continued to make great copy and inspire journalists, as Matt Labash demonstrated in his 2009 Weekly Standard profile, in which he accompanied Barry around the city for several days. Even in his autumn, Barry’s vitality still glowed, but with the softness of a light about to go out. Labash, who unlike so many other journalists accepts Barry on his own terms, collects a quotation from long-time TV news anchor Jim Vance, a Barry friend, that if pared down a few words could serve as his honest tombstone epitaph.
“There were so many of us who had so much hope for Marion,” Vance told Labash. “I don’t know too many people that were more blessed or that had more skills than Marion had, nor too many people who were a bigger disappointment, quite frankly.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery