Five takeaways from Marion Barry’s new autobiography, ‘Mayor for Life’

The occasionally sensational accounts of Marion Barry’s thirst for sex, drugs and power in his new memoir may get most of the public attention. But there are other insights to be gleaned from “Mayor for Life: The Incredible Story of Marion Barry, Jr.” (Mike DeBonis and Tom LeGro/The Washington Post)

The occasionally sensational accounts of Marion Barry’s thirst for sex, drugs and power in his new memoir may get most of the public attention. But there are other insights to be gleaned from “Mayor for Life: The Incredible Story of Marion Barry, Jr.,” the 336-page autobiography written with novelist Omar Tyree. While Barry isn’t known as the most introspective man, there’s enough to get a sense of the D.C. political icon.

1. Barry was a bright young man on the move. Barry includes some little known details about his early life: a stint in the Naval Air Reserve, how he nearly entered law school in Tennessee and his immersion in political activism — starting with a bid to organize his fellow black carriers at Memphis’s newspaper, the Commercial Appeal, who weren’t getting the same perks as white carriers. Later, as a student, he organized a protest against a LeMoyne-Owen College trustee who also defended Memphis’s segregated bus system. Young Barry’s political efforts culminated in his leading role in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and his arrival in Washington in 1965.

2. Effi Barry was an awfully understanding wife. While Barry’s first two marriages get short shrift, Barry speaks fulsomely of his third wife, Effi Slaughter Barry, whom he married in 1978 as he prepared to make his first mayoral run. “There were always rumors about me womanizing and drinking as the mayor of Washington,” Barry writes, without mentioning that some of the rumors were well-founded. “But Effi would ignore it all and never let it bother her. She wasn’t a jealous woman.” (Other accounts, including “Dream City,” report that Effi wasn’t quite so equanimous.) Barry describes arriving home after his late nights out and sleeping downstairs while his wife slept upstairs in the marital bed. Elsewhere, Barry writes about Effi feeling hesitant to have children because of his busy lifestyle, he says. According to Barry, their only child, Christopher, was conceived in late 1979 during a short trip to Sen. Patrick Leahy’s house in Vermont.

3. Barry has a selective, sometimes incorrect memory. Several of Barry’s recollections from the 1990 drug raid are demonstrably untrue. For instance, the infamous tape depicting his use of crack cocaine wasn’t released immediately after the sting, as Barry suggests, but months later during his trial. Same goes for his accounts of what happened at that trial: While Barry laments that the white men on his jury convicted him on all counts — “racism still lived that strongly in America,” he writes — he does not mention that, as The Washington Post reported shortly after the trial, four black jurors had also voted to convict on most accounts. Barry also errs in saying there were three white jurors when there were two, and both in fact voted to acquit on some counts.

4. Barry doesn’t have much to say about the corruption around him. Several times in the book, Barry talks about how he eschewed personal wealth to help those around him. “The goal was always to sacrifice your personal needs to create more opportunities for others,” he writes. But he is hesitant to criticize those who took shortcuts to wealth, deeming it “regrettable” that his top political aide, Ivanhoe Donaldson, admitted to taking $190,000 in kickbacks in 1995. “I had no knowledge of what was going on,” he said. And of his deputy mayor Alphonse Hill, who later pleaded guilty to extortion and tax evasion, Barry writes, “He was very good with numbers and he got caught up. I didn’t know anything else about it.”

5. No other D.C. mayor has ever measured up to Barry’s standard. He lambastes Sharon Pratt, who served between Barry’s third and fourth terms, for allowing the Redskins to decamp to Maryland and for installing a $40,000 marble fireplace in her office. He describes being impressed by Adrian M. Fenty in 2006 before he became “arrogant and a great disappointment.” And current Mayor Vincent C. Gray, Barry writes, made “unwise decisions with personnel” that could have been avoided had he heeded Barry’s advice. Watching Gray’s administration unravel, he writes, “was like watching a snowball speeding down a hill that kept growing and growing in size. . . . Quite frankly, I’ve never seen anything like it in all my years in politics.”

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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