A Concealed Capital

Marcus Sakey looks into the unsavory side of Washington history on a new ‘Hidden City’

February 7, 2012

Crime novelist Marcus Sakey investigates Marion Barry and the D.C. snipers in a Washington-focused episode of “Hidden City.”

Tourism and crime don’t normally go hand-in-hand, but Travel Channel’s “Hidden City” merges them fairly effortlessly. Hosted by novelist Marcus Sakey, the one-hour series delves into the scandalous past of a different city every week, exposing unsavory histories to shed light on places’ present-day characters. “Hidden City’s” D.C. episode — which covers the tales of Marion Barry, FBI double agent Robert Hanssen and the 2002 sniper case — airs Tuesday at 9 p.m.

How do D.C. crimes compare to those of other cities?
They’re a little bit different. Every city is kind of centered around its own vibe, and [D.C.’s] is politics. That’s just the lifeblood of the place. I really enjoyed being able to cover the spy story [of FBI double agent Robert Hanssen, who was a spy for the Soviet Union and Russia from 1979 to 2001]. Hanssen had enormous international impact; the cost of the damage he did, they measured in the billions. Some of the information he gave up, used wrongly, could have led to World War III.

Covering the D.C. snipers case, did you feel like you were reopening any wounds by talking to people?
It was interesting to see that it was obviously still very fresh in peoples’ minds. It’s something residents have not forgotten. It shook people because this is a center of government, right? This, of any place, should be safe and able to handle something like this, and yet two guys in a car were able to throw sand in the gears of civilization.

You also asked many people for their opinions about Marion Barry. Did anything you heard surprise you?
I’m a novelist, so I love big characters, and you don’t get bigger than Marion Barry. Fascinating guy. It was interesting to me to see the whole breadth of opinions on him. We shot in a dozen different locations to try and get different perspectives on him. It was interesting how polarizing a figure he is. Even people who acknowledge that he screwed up still love the guy. Then there are people who find everything he did reprehensible and feel that his sins negate any good he did.

What do you think he represents to D.C.?
He represents D.C. enormously well, as a place of incredible promise that doesn’t always achieve that promise. It’s a place where we’re shooting for the highest ideals, but it’s people shooting for it. People have flaws, you know; people are messed up, and people sleep with the wrong people and do drugs and give in to their pride and ambition. And I think that’s a really nice summation of the whole ideal that is D.C.

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Christopher Porter · February 6, 2012