Help wanted for D.C. high-wire act

It has come to our attention that one of the council members of the District of Columbia is seeking a new director of communications.

A bachelor’s degree in journalism, media relations or another related field of study is required, as is the ability to maintain a cool head under pressure.

The council member is Marion Barry.

“We had a budget for it,” Barry cheerfully explains, when contacted at his office. “You’ve got to be courageous. You’ve got to be a risk taker.”

You don’t say.


Barry holds a news conference at the Wilson Building after prosecutors decided not to pursue the stalking case against him. With him are attorney Frederick Cooke Jr. and spokeswoman Natalie Williams. (Bill O'Leary/THE WASHINGTON POST)

What is it like to communicate for Marion Barry?

In politics, the director of communications is responsible for explaining an official’s positions and actions for the media and the public. What iron heart, titanium stomach, carbonite bowels are required to interpret the verbal duffs occasionally launched by the city’s eternally flamboyant and endlessly provocative institution?

Perhaps souls who have acted as communications director or press secretary for Barry or his office over the course of his 40-year career can offer tips to the hypothetical new hire.

“You have to be high energy,” says Linda Wharton Boyd, who was Mayor Barry’s communications director from 1997-1999. “There’s never a dull moment. . . . You have to hit the ground flying.”

“Make sure you’re a step ahead of him,” says Andre Johnson, a former Barry communications director. “He has a memory like a photo. Never promise him something and then forget to do it. Because he will not forget. And he will haunt you.”

You had better be ready to get up early in the morning, Johnson says, because Barry is an early riser, and he likes to immediately get on top of the news. He’s a fantastic strategist, Johnson says. “And, ah — he’s always a lightning rod for something.”

A lightning rod? Marion Barry?

Any Washingtonian worth his or her salt knows the folklore: tax returns, alcohol, Filipino nurses, “dirty Asian shops” — and we haven’t even gotten to the sting in the Vista hotel.

Who set him up? You know.

“I am extremely thankful for the opportunity. I am so glad I did it,” Johnson says. He learned a lot from his old boss, he says, whom he likes and admires and keeps in touch with. “So glad I did it.” He bursts out laughing. “Would not do it again.”

And yet someone must, because it wouldn’t be Washington without Marion Barry, the beloved, the maligned, the man who once ran for city council using the slogan, “He may not be perfect, but he’s perfect for D.C.”

John C. White was a longtime reporter with the Philadelphia Daily News when he responded to a posting in an association newsletter from a mayor seeking a communications staff member. “I didn’t even know who it was [when I applied],” he says. “Then I found out who it was.”

He dived in, working as Barry’s press secretary during his third mayoral term in the 1980s.

“My big deal was the Ramada Inn,” he says — the incident in which Barry was in the room of a friend implicated in drug use. When White first heard what had happened — “You won’t be able to print it.”

At one point in his tenure, White, who went on to a long career in communications, remembers running into a press secretary for President Ronald Reagan. “He said, ‘We often think about you down at the White House.’ I thought, ‘Oh, Jesus.’ ”

Raymone Bain served as Barry’s press secretary in the mid-1990s and went on to represent many celebrities, including Michael Jackson. She says Barry always appreciated her willingness to speak her mind. “It was either Mrs. Barry or I who was saying, ‘You can’t say that; this is not the way to say that,’ ” Bain says. Barry’s fourth wife, Cora, was his communications director. Bain recalls one event where members of the community were airing their grievances, and he breezily responded, “Oh, well. People in hell want ice water, too.”

“I thought,” she says, “I would die.”

The heck of it was, she says, that the people loved it — the blunt talk, the misspeaks. Bain might be sharing her dismay behind closed doors, “But then he’d start getting letters delivered, or cookies delivered, saying ‘keep it up, Marion!’ ”

It is hard, she says, to argue with the people.

“I consider it one of my best jobs,” says Lurma Rackley, who was press secretary for the mayor’s office when Barry was arrested in 1990. She liked his ideals; she appreciated their shared civil rights background. “And,” she says, “I would just as soon be Marion’s [spokesman] as I would be [House Speaker John] Boehner’s or Mitt Romney’s.”

Anyone speaking for any politician is going to spend at least half of the time in a briskly boiling pot of water. Rackley’s away from it all now, living in Georgia, working for Habitat for Humanity.

But back to the job at hand. The last person to hold the position was Natalie Wilson, who attempted, but failed, to unseat Barry in the recent D.C. Council Democratic primary.

“The person has to be rather stable in their psychology, and not get flustered by what someone says about me,” Barry the prospective boss, says thoughtfully, when asked about what he is looking for in a new employee.

Additionally, his new hire must be proficient in social media — the Facebooking and tweeting and Web-site maintenance. “I can’t type as fast,” he laments.

Stamina is also a must. “I’m a high-profile person,” Barry says. “I’m probably the most recognizable face and name, or in the top 10, of the region. All eyes are on me.”

Barry says that his office has already received eight or nine good résumés for the position, with a salary range of $46,350 to $75,000, and he planned to commence with interviews this week. His office is still accepting applications, he says, in case anyone else is interested in submitting a résumé.

“Really, my only advice is to be nimble on your feet, and be honest with the media and the public, and that’s the best you can do,” White says. “He’s really a very adroit politician. He really is his own press secretary.”

Monica Hesse is a staff writer for the Post Style section. She frequently writes about culture, the Web and the intersection of the two.
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