He's 'been through worse,' but Marion Barry's battles are taking a toll

By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, March 3, 2010; B01

In the long and wearisome public war between his survival instinct and apparent death wish, D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), has prevailed despite drug addiction, drug bust, jail time, failure to file income taxes, marital infidelity, an arrest for alleged stalking, sex addiction, kidney failure, prostate cancer, diabetes and high blood pressure.

So there's no reason to believe that Tuesday's vote by council colleagues to censure Barry for malfeasance will do him in, either. He has two years left in his term and the political support to win again if he runs.

"I'm feeling great," Barry told me before the vote. "I've been through worse."

And yet, his winded and rambling defense of indefensible behavior made it painfully obvious that the war has taken a toll. At 73, Barry should be enjoying life as a wise elder, not appearing to have failed once again to turn hindsight into insight, let alone foresight.

During a recent interview, we talked about why he keeps making the same mistakes, over and over, and his penchant for morally questionable relationships with women.

"Love is very fleeting with me and I don't know why," Barry said. "Whenever I get that feeling -- I call it my emotional buy-in -- I want to hold on to it so badly. The next thing I know my judgment is clouded. I'm seeing things that aren't there and not seeing things that should be obvious. And just like that, it's gone."

The censure vote stemmed from a $15,000 "personal service" contract that he had awarded to Donna Watts-Brighthaupt, his 40-year-old on-again, off-again girlfriend. Barry claims he had lent her money as part of their personal relationship and didn't think twice when she repaid him with money from the government contract.

"This was the first time in my career that I have ever gotten romantically involved with someone on my staff -- except for first ladies Effi and Cora, who had offices down the hall from mine," he said.

You got the impression that Barry still fancied himself as the mayor -- "Emotionally, it's lonely at the top, very lonely," he said at one point -- and that he had somehow mistaken Watts-Brighthaupt for a first lady.

"From the very beginning, Donna's ex-husband was in the picture, and I said to her, based on my experience, that that kind of thing never works out," Barry said. "I told her, 'He's got to go.' And she agreed for a while. But slowly, he got back in. I should have said, 'That's it' and called it off. But in Donna, I had found a place of refuge, a place where I could unwind and have personal conversations, something that has always been hard for me."

The soap opera came to light last year when Barry was arrested in Anacostia Park and charged with stalking Watts-Brighthaupt. Although the charges were dropped, the drama continued, and news about her contract with Barry eventually leaked. After denouncing her as "mentally ill" and claiming that their the relationship had ended, Barry took her out to dinner and even spent the night at her house.

"I just hate to give up until I have to give up," Barry told me. "That's just the way I am. I have a tenacious personality."

Others describe it differently. A friend said he suffers from an "addictive and oppositional personality." Another said he was simply "delusional." A woman who claimed to have been deeply hurt by Barry's so called "fleeting love" called him "totally self-obsessed."

"Marion's mother was a sharecropper who gave birth to him when she was 15," the friend recalled.

It's been reported that his father was an alcoholic who abused his mother and then abandoned them.

"I understand why he behaves the way he does," the friend said. "He needs adoration. He needs to feel loved."

But if Barry uses public office for therapy, those who elect him to represent the poorest ward in the city seem to get uplifted as well. He was clearly speaking to them when he vowed to become the city's "job czar," which happens to be how he saw himself as mayor.

"The reason I survive is because I have an abiding faith in God," Barry told me. "I let God be my guide."

Did God lead him to Watts-Brighthaupt?

"Having faith doesn't mean you don't have to use good sense," Barry said. "God doesn't expect you to act like a fool. But God did give us a secular side and a human side. There is a constant fight between the Devil, which is the flesh, and the spirit, which is God. It's a total, all-out war."

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