In his new memoir, Marion Barry comes off as the toughest guy in the District—maybe in America. He stares down trucks full of Southern segregationists, then takes on white developers in the District. He totes around a gun as a 1960s organizer, lest the street toughs he’s turning into a political base turn against him.
At one point in Mayor for Life, Barry even tells his strategists to win a Board of Education race for him—lest they have to “outrun a bullet.” He’d put away the gun by that point, but they don’t know that.
In the end, there’s only one person Barry can’t grapple with: himself. The book takes Barry from his upbringing as a sharecropper’s son in the segregated south to three terms as mayor, a downfall for smoking crack cocaine, and his eventual comeback as mayor and the current Ward 8 councilmember, with lots of colorful events along the way (Barry gets “pissed off” a whole lot). Still, the book reads like a 324-page essay on why Barry should be remembered beyond “bitch set me up,” with all the repetition and whitewashing that entails.
Barry has a kindred soul in co-writer Omar Tyree, whose series of steamy urban novels match well with Barry’s encounters with sex, power, and drugs.
Still, LL thinks Barry should find another ghostwriter for Mayor for Life 2: Now It’s Personal. While Barry has done his part by providing the salacious story (sort of), Tyree hasn’t returned it with the writing. Characters like talk show host Petey Greene are introduced, then introduced again a few pages later like it’s the first time. The book misspells names, repeats the same ideas, and incorrectly puts Barry’s triumphant re-election campaign in 1995 instead of 1994.
The book deploys a fragmented narrative that’d verge on avant-garde if it appeared at all deliberate. The reader doesn’t learn about the pivotal 1968 riots that wrecked much of black Washington until 10 years later in the story, when Barry is elected mayor. As Barry splits up with third wife Effi Barry—a dramatic high point of Barry’s post-prison life—the story jumps ahead to tell us what their house would sell for today. At best, Tyree has captured the real-life experience of talking to Barry, with all the digressions and self-aggrandizement of one of his Council appearances.
Then again, LL flipped through one of Tyree’s other books and found a character wondering whether to poke a busty woman’s “torpedoes” with a fork to see if they were real, so Mayor for Life could have been worse.
The story also glosses over enormous events in Barry’s life: His first wife is mentioned for the first time and done away with all in just one sentence, with Barry saying their marriage was annulled. Similarly, Barry cryptically pegs the end of his second marriage with Mary Treadwell on the problems of having “two people of equal power in a relationship.” When close friend and advisor Ivanhoe Donaldson is tossed into prison after pillaging nearly $200,000 from the District, Barry mentions it in passing, mostly to proclaim his own ignorance of the scheme.
Which isn’t to say Barry doesn’t deliver the goods, talking about everything from whether he accepted propositions from male inmates in his prison (no) to whether he’s a sex addict (also no).
If you’re here to find out what Barry thinks of his crack-smoking bust in the Vista Hotel, you’ll get it. Like fellow crack-smoking Mayor Rob Ford, Barry says his drug habit was due to a drinking problem, plus the promise that coked-up women would sleep with him. Barry’s first brush with cocaine provides the book with what’s clearly its money quote.
“It felt like I had ejaculated,” Barry writes. “The cocaine was a powerful stimulant that went straight to my penis.”
Barry’s first encounter with the drug in his third term as mayor also provides the book with one of its least believable moments. Throughout Mayor for Life, Barry talks up his remarkable accomplishments, both personal—rising from the cotton fields of Mississippi to the District’s mayoral suite—and professional—creating the summer jobs program, increasing contract work for minority-owned businesses. Despite his savviness in the rest of his life, when it comes to anything that reflects poorly on Barry, he’s a wide-eyed naïf.
Here’s a married Barry after he finds himself alone with a woman after a party—not at all because of his own actions, he assures us. She offers him some cocaine, then the unnamed woman tells Barry the drug “makes my pussy hot.” Barry, who 100 pages earlier was boasting about his success with beautiful women in college, is stunned to hear a woman talk this way.
“That’s exactly what she said to me,” Barry writes. “And I was shocked.”
When Barry agrees to snort the drug in the hopes that the woman will sleep with him, he accidentally exhales instead of inhales, blowing the blow all over the room.
Barry portrays himself as similarly naive when he’s drawn into the Vista Hotel crack sting by sometimes-mistress Rasheeda Moore. He’s so unfamiliar with the drug that he has to practice smoking it in the bathroom.
Barry blames the bust on a wide-reaching conspiracy to embarrass him (and possibly kill him!) that stretches from American embassies abroad to purported U.S. government involvement in the international cocaine trade, to reporters he claims were tipped off to the scheme (like Barry biography Dream City co-author Tom Sherwood, then working at NBC4, who has denied advance knowledge of the bust). Even companies that made T-shirts with his “Bitch Set Me Up” lament on it are possible co-conspirators.
“I have no idea how they were able to print those shirts so fast, “ Barry writes. “It was like someone had tipped them off and they had their machines ready overnight.”
Barry’s much less reluctant to take responsibility for his more recent scandals, which is saying something considering how he handles the Vista. Consider his failure to file tax forms for years, which resulted in the IRS putting a lien on his house and garnishing his Council paychecks. According to Barry, he had just “gotten out of practice.”
“I procrastinated on filing them,” Barry writes. “I didn’t refuse to file my taxes by intent or maliciously; I just didn’t do them.”
Barry’s 2012 remark that he’d get “dirty Asian shops” out of his ward is similarly chalked up to a misunderstanding. “I put Asian business owners on notice, because they don’t live in the community,” Barry writes. “Besides that, a lot of their stores were not up to par on cleanliness.” All was resolved, Barry claims, once he met with Asian-American business owners who “learned to respect my views.”
Barry’s most significant recent scandals—his steering of Council earmarks to cronies and his girlfriend, and his taking of thousands in cash gifts from city contractors—don’t even merit a mention. While Barry devotes much of the book to making the case for a voice for the District’s impoverished, he never considers how his continued personal failings—and the Council punishments that often come with them—have hurt his constituents.
The closest Barry gets to the earmark kerfuffle, which cost him his Council committee chairmanship, is a nod at unnamed women who he claims have done him wrong. But what can he do? He can’t resist a female companion.
“So I have to forgive myself, even in my older age, from being a normal man with feelings for a woman,” Barry writes.
Hospitalized earlier this year, the 78-year-old Barry uses his new book to ask the District to forgive him, too. The question, in more ways than one, is whether anyone will buy it.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery