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.
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.’ ”