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The Question Is: Will He Deliver?By Nicholas Lemann
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 16, 1979
Here's Mayor Marion Barry at the annual awards banquet of the New Canaan Baptist Church. It's a Monday night in October, and a middle-class, dressed-up, all-black, happy crowd is sitting around tables in a dining room in the basement of the Washington Hilton. Barry, a prosperous-looking and handsome man in a dark three-piece suit, walks in smiling and chats with the ladies selling raffle tickets at the door; his chauffeur waits outside in the hall.
It's a typical evening for Mayor Barry; most nights he makes a public appearance like this. He goes to disco receptions, art gallery openings, testimonial dinners, fashion shows, dinner-dances, store openings and occasional conventions - all at least arguably de rigueur, although he seems to like events that feature him' for their own sake too. He celebrated his first 100 days in office with a party at the Club La Serre and spent most of July on an adulation-filled trip to Africa whose relevance to the governance of the city he has never convincingly explained.
But this night in October is a duty performance. Barry is introduced as "a great man." He takes the podium and says, in a soft, almost hesitating voice, "You know, I receive almost 200 invitations every week. Naturally I can't make all of those, but I especially wanted to come by tonight to show you how much I appreciate what you are doing for the community. You don't just practice religion on Sundays." There is a chorus of murmured amens from the audience.
"I need your support," Barry says, his voice rising. "We're going to build 6,000 new units of housing in this city. This summer we had 30,000 summer jobs. We're also working in health and infant mortality. And we're trying to do something about the school system too. I want to make Washington, D.C., the number one city, the best city, the premier city in the entire world." The audience cheers; the mayor smiles graciously, shakes a few hands, and goes off to his next appointment, leaving behind a sense that he is what a mayor ought to be, without precisely conveying who he really is or what he and his government really care about. He is a high-visibility mayor, but not a man who reveals himself easily.
One Saturday morning 10 years ago, there was a meeting in the basement of the Roosevelt Hotel on 16th Street of the citizens' board of the Model Police Precinct, a now long-forgotten Great Society project, of which more later. The chairman of the citizens' board was Marion S. Barry Jr., then a political activist, and he was at the meeting with one of his lieutenants, Isaac Long. Also in attendance was a sociologist named Thomas Lalley, who was working on a study of the Model Police Precinct. He remembers the scene this way:
"Marion was on time for once, so we were waiting around for everybody else to get there. He looked around and said, 'Suppose that all of us board members were to find that we had been locked up in this room, and that although we tried the doors and the windows and everything else for many years, we still couldn't get out. Then suppose that one day Isaac finds a way out through the ceiling that the rest of us haven't seen, and he moves around outside for a while and then comes back in.
" 'And then suppose Isaac asks one of us to tell him how to get out of the room. Well, that's bull.
" 'Or suppose he tells us that all of us ought to start figuring again how to get out of the room. Well, that's jive.
" 'So the thing Isaac should do is show us how he got out of this room. Then if he later disappears or turns against us, at least he's taught us something.'
"That summed up Marion's view of himself," Lalley says. "He was a realist. He knew the ways of the world. He was going to go his own way, but he'd leave something behind. He'd leave an example."
All his life, that's what Marion Barry has done: seen the way out of the locked room; pointed it out; and moved on, leaving behind not so much a solution as his own example that the thing could be done. All his life he has moved into situations, defined them, come to dominate them and in the end left them - not usually in the best of shape. And always this process has been a racial one: Barry as civil rights leader, Barry as militant, even now Barry as (as he often points out) not just mayor but black mayor. Besides plain ambition, what has fueled his continual moving on has been the desire to be a role model, to show that a black man could do whatever it was Barry was doing.
The idea of Barry as exemplar is at the center of the Barry administration, an administration whose self-conception is not modest. "We're an example of pride to D.C., to the nation and especially to the international community," says Herbert Reid, Barry's counsel and longtime friend. "See, it's important to the international community to show that blacks are part of the action in the U.S." As Barry sees it, his mayoralty is, in keeping with his world view, a showpiece to be admired by a wide audience.
How Barry got to the mayor's office helps explain how he came to have that view of himself; and understanding his view of himself helps explain what he's doing as mayor.
Marion Barry was born in 1936 in a little town called Itta Bena in the mostly black, feudal cotton country of the Mississippi Delta, and grew up there and in Memphis. His father, a handyman, died while he was young, and his mother remarried a butcher. Barry went to LeMoyne College in Memphis and majored in chemistry because, he says, "I didn't want to be a social worker or a teacher." He thought about going to law school after college, but decided instead to go on in chemistry at Fisk University in Nashville, where he was briefly married for the first time. His friends from those days remember him as an unremarkable regular guy - a churchgoer and a fraternity brother. Several times, though, Barry led public protests against segregation. "That surprised everybody," says William Hawkins, a friend from those days. "I felt the same way he did, but something in me said, 'Don't do it.' I guess the difference might have been that Marion was a little less well off than the rest of us. We felt we had something to fall back on when the rest of the world wouldn't accept us."
On Feb. 1,1960, while Barry was in his second year at Fisk, four black students were arrested in Greensboro, N.C., for sitting at a segregated Woolworth's lunch counter. "At that moment," says Ivanhoe Donaldson, then a student at Michigan State and now Barry's closest aide, "something happened. Before, there was no student movement. In 30 or 40 days, 40,000 students were involved." Over Easter weekend of 1960, representatives of these students gathered at Shaw College in Raleigh, N.C., and founded the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Students from Atlanta succeeded in having SNCC's headquarters established there; in return, Marion Barry from Nashville was elected SNCC's first national chairman.
SNCC was meant to be different from the other civil rights organizations - the moderate institutional NAACP, the northern urban Congress on Racial Equality, and the minister-dominated Southern Christian Leadership Conference. SNCC was based on direct action and, more importantly, was younger than the other groups. While other civil rights leaders talked hopefully about the world their children would live in, SNCC members talked about now. They were to be agents of change, but also personal examples, role models to the world.
Barry dropped out of graduate school in 1964 to work full-time in the movement. He did organizing in the South, and then SNCC headquarters sent him to New York to open a fund-raising office there; subsequently he was named head of the Washington office. He arrived in 1965, at a time when SNCC was in a state of transition. The early legal battles against segregation had been mostly won, but that did not leave members of SNCC with a sense of having won a place for themselves in mainstream, white American society. So, under the leadership of Stokely Carmichael, SNCC's attention turned increasingly to issues of black pride and African politics, which the rest of the movement largely ignored.
In Washington, Barry quickly became involved in local political issues - mainly boycotts of the bus system to protest fare increases and a "Free D.C. Movement" that worked for home rule - to the exclusion of fundraising for SNCC. "Every time I went down to Atlanta," he says now, "I had to explain it." He became a local celebrity almost immediately, a man referred to by the newspapers as a "militant leader," constantly organizing protests and boycotts. In 1967 he quit SNCC and was faced with the decision of what to do next - or, more broadly, of how to apply his personal ambition and the principles of the black power movement to the District. What he did was get involved in a world that was then in full flower here - the world of federal grants and racial tension and jobs programs.
A revealing document about the Barry of this period - and about the racial climate in Washington - is an hour-long, cinema verite-style film called "People and the Police," made with a $250,000 grant from the Office of Economic Opportunity by the liberal political filmmaker Charles Guggenheim and never shown to the public because OEO was unhappy with the program. "People and the Police" is a chronicle of the early years of the Model Police Precinct, on whose board Barry served, and into which OEO poured $3 million between 1968 and 1972 in hopes of improving police-community relations.
The movie begins with several scenes of angry meetings, and the camera comes to rest more and more on Barry, the figure with by far the most star quality - tall and strikingly handsome and, as a speaker, able to communicate both a sense of angry passion and an ability to be a reasonable leader. In counterpoint to Barry, there is Robert Shellow, an earnest, nervously friendly white psychologist who is the project's director.
There are more meetings. Shellow drives up in a battered old Volvo and tries to maintain order. Barry rises and says, "This program has been packaged for black people. If we can't control it, let's kick it out of here." Barry resigns from the model precinct's citizen board in protest.
Then there is a scene of people marching outside a building carrying placards that say "Shellow: Pig Must Go." Then Shellow appears on the screen, a look of agonizing self-appraisal on his face, and explains that he has decided to resign as director of the project. "I'm a white man," he says, "and my upbringing has taught me a derogatory attitude to blacks. It's deep within me. It's a sickness. It's a chronic sickness."
The rest of the movie is all Barry - Barry being triumphantly elected chairman of a new, powerful citizens' board; Barry meeting with the mayor; Barry handling problems; Barry chairing meetings. He appears several times with a woman somewhat more angry and strident than he is - Mary Treadwell, then his girlfriend and co-worker, later his second wife. The movie's final scene, and the only one obviously staged, shows Barry walking up 14th Street, his arm draped around a cute little kid. "We've got to try to create some love and feeling," Barry tells the kid, guiding him across the street. The kid starts talking about the police. "They nothing but pigs, man," he says. "I told them that. I said, 'Y'all ain't nothing but pigs, man. You know that?' " The two walk off, and the words "The Project Continues . . . " flash on the screen just before the credits.
In fact, the project didn't continue long. Marion Barry left it in 1971 to run for the school board. In 1972 OEO stopped its funding. "In the end," says Lalley, "it turned into an anti-poverty agency. It didn't do anything for police-community relations."
Despite all that, Barry emerged from the project with his stature not just undiminished, but enhanced - a great talent of his. "He had assurance," says Lalley. "Fearlessness. He was very impressive."
The history of Barry's other major endeavor of that period - Pride Inc. - is quite similar.
On the night of May 1, 1967, on a desolate, weedy railroad track near the corner of Benning Road and Minnesota Avenue in far Northeast Washington, in a tussle over a gun and a 29-cent bag of chocolate chip cookies, police shot and killed a young black man named Clarence Booker, known to his friends as Bug. A friend of Booker's, Rufus Mayfield, known as Catfish, had seen the shooting - had, in fact, made the mistake of urging his friend to run from the police - and had been terribly shaken up by it.
A week later Mayfield, grieving deeply over Booker, was sitting in his sister's apartment in Southwest Washington. "Somebody said a man wanted to see me," he says, "and lo and behold, it was Marion Barry. I'd heard of him because he was getting locked up for bus boycotts. So he introduced himself and said, 'I'd like to help you.' That was the beginning of a marriage.
"After that we started working on the coroner's inquest into Bug's death. And also, Marion was a complete novice to the urban setting. I was his ticket in. He'd come and get me at 8 in the morning, and keep me out till 2. And we began to conjure up ideas First we conjured up a proposal for a multi-service social club. We almost got funding for that. Then Marion asked me about jobs. I said, 'Man, that'd be even better.'
In the meantime, a group of local black leaders including Barry was holding regular weekly meetings with Willard Wirtz, then secretary of labor, and at one of the meetings in July of 1967 Barry proposed setting up a corporation to provide summer jobs for kids in the District. "We met with Wirtz the next Monday morning," says David Rusk, the son of the then-secretary of state and, as an executive of the Metropolitan Washington Urban League, a member of the group that met with Wirtz, "and he said, 'Okay, you've got $300,000 for August - go to work. In a week we'd hired 1,100 kids. We'd say, 'You want to work? You proud you're black? You're hired.' "
The program was called Pride Inc., and its chairman was not Barry but 20-year-old Rufus Mayfield. The reason Mayfield was put in the organization's most visible position was fairly cynical: it was part of the mood of the time that the world would look more favorably on Pride if it appeared to be run by actual kids from the ghetto determined to help themselves, rather than by adults with a Labor Department grant. "Catfish was a real, well, he was the personality symbolic of Pride Inc.," says Rusk. "It was Catfish to whom was attributed responsibility for Pride. It served the purposes and the mystique better to have Catfish serve as the founder." Mayfield became an instant celebrity. He chatted with Hubert Humphrey. He spoke at national urban conferences with John Lindsay. Barry and Mary Treadwell stayed in the background.
Then, in February 1968, Pride gave a dinner for Walter Washington, just appointed mayor-commissioner of the District of Columbia. Mayfield was standing on the dais when a Pride worker came up to him and said, "Catfish, you're not supposed to be on stage." Mayfield asked why. "Marion has given me instructions," the worker said.
Mayfield, furious, called a press conference at a housing project near the Anacostia River for a couple of days later. When the hour for the conference arrived, 200 Pride workers appeared on the scene and broke up the conference. That was the end of Mayfield's chairmanship of Pride. "Catfish began to really believe the public relations and think he was really in charge," says Rusk. "The rest of the board said, 'No, you're not."
Mayfield is now an aspiring standup comedian and still bitter about the whole affair. "Marion Barry is evil," he says today. "I am his adversary. He just goes step to step. He never completes it. He always says he can do a better job. He'll say that again - you watch and see don't he say he'll do a better job somewhere else. He uses people."
From then on, the public figure who represented Pride Inc. was Marion Barry; it was his power base in Washington. In August 1968 Pride got another grant from the Labor Department, that one for $3.8 million. Almost from the beginning there were rumors of graft in the program and a string of legal problems beginning with 17 indictments of Pride employees in February 1970 and culminating in the federal investigation of Mary Treadwell today. But although the program today is an apparently corrupt mess, Barry's own involvement in it redounded to his political benefit. He was able to move on with his reputation bolstered. When he ran for the school board, it was on the strength of his performance at Pride that he was elected. And although he had been elected to the school board on the promise that he would end its incessant bickering and left it bickering with a new superintendent, Barbara Sizemore, his reputation once again grew, and he was easily elected city councilman at large in 1975.
The reason for his good reputation is partly that follow-through is not the first thing people look for in politicians and partly that he has undeniable skills. He has a born ability to project, as his predecessor, Walter Washington, did not, what The Post in its effusive endorsement of him for mayor called "the particular qualities of leadership - energy, nerve, initiative, imagination, toughness of mind, an active concern for people in distress, command presence, if you will." While on the city council, he became quite knowledgeable about the District's economic woes and became able to speak articulately about them better than any other politician in town. He retained his ability to focus on the political issues people cared about most - particularly, in his election campaign, the issue of housing. He had the foresight to court constituencies - gays, Latinos, feminists - that his opponents ignored. He got the endorsement of the police union, the teachers union and the firefighters' union, for whom, once he got on the council, he always fought for increased pay. And he drew the maximum advantage from racial issues, so that in his campaign, running against two other blacks, he talked the most about white racism, made it clear that the real vote against racism in the campaign was a vote for Marion Barry, and heavily outpolled his opponents among white voters.
Barry took office in January in a flurry of celebration and has since settled down to a routine. Last month he bought his first house in Washington, on Suitland Road in Anacostia. It cost $125,000. His third wife, Effi, an elegant looking woman who, since her husband took office, has worked at a consulting firm that gets federal grants to develop training programs, is now pregnant with their first child. Every morning at 7 a chauffeur in a midnight-blue Ford LTD with MAYOR license plates picks the mayor up in back of his house, and he goes off to work. Both Barrys keep a heavy schedule of social appearances, but both insist they are private, introspective people.
In office Barry has continued to see his mission in largely racial terms, a perspective that manifests itself in a couple of ways. First of all, he portrays himself, especially when under attack, as a victim of white racism - which he certainly was for most of his life but may or may not be today. When he was criticized for insisting that black developers be given nearly free equity in city construction projects, he said, "What people may be reacting to is that black people are now playing the same game that other people have been playing for the past 100 years." He has maintained all year that he is being judged by an especially high standard because he is black. "There's a feeling that blacks can't do anything right," he says. "We want to show blacks can be competent."
Second, as has been the case from SNCC onward, there is a strong emphasis on the mayoralty of Barry as example, and on Barry and the people around him as role models. Barry and his closest aides talk as if the eyes of the world are upon them, as if they will build pride among blacks everywhere. Thus the emphasis placed on having blacks in prominent roles in city projects; thus the constant talk of the role of the mayor of Washington in international affairs (Barry has even hired the District's first director of protocol); thus the well-publicized trip to Africa.
That kind of provide-an-example approach to governing the city is fine for building pride, but the question about Barry is whether he'll also do something tangible for the group on whose stated behalf all his crusades have been undertaken - poor blacks. Despite the presence of a large black middle class in the District (whose support Barry didn't get in his last campaign but will probably need to get reelected), white median family income here is nearly double black median family income. Eleven percent of the black population is on public assistance, as against 1.4 percent of the white population. There are 6,000 people on the waiting list for public housing. In the almost entirely black public schools, the SAT scores are 100 points below the national average. Changing all that will be the great test of Barry as mayor, because it will require a tenacious unwillingness to move on to his next charismatic, triumphant, admiration-inspiring position.
Let's go back to that dinner where we started, because it was there that Barry made what is his basic brief for himself as mayor. He mentioned housing - 6,000 new units in the District, presumably for the tens of thousands of what he calls "displaceable" people. He mentioned jobs - 30,000 last summer, presumably more later, He mentioned infant mortality - Washington has the highest rate in the nation - and education. And he alluded to bringing a new spirit to the District government.
Barry so far has been excellent at pinpointing problems to be addressed and at dramatically starting to address them. He has set up his administration well. Even the most disgruntled District Building employees say he is doing a better job than Walter Washington. But what he hasn't been as good at is follow-through. He still seems to move on too quickly.
Barry has always said he isn't a day-to-day administrator, and he has largely delegated that job to City Manager Elijah Rogers. Besides Rogers, he spends the most time with Ivanhoe Donaldson, an old colleague from SNCC who was Barry's campaign strategist and who holds the title of "general assistant." Barry also consults regularly with Robert Moore, his housing director; Courtland Cox, whose job is to promote minority business; Herbert Reid, his counsel and another SNCC veteran; city councilmen John Ray and David Clarke; and David Eaton, pastor of All Souls' Unitarian Church. Together, all these people present a more visible and competent front than did the administration of Mayor Washington. It's a small thing, but in the past District employees had a reputation for answering the phone on perhaps the eighth ring; Barry saw that this was terrible public relations, sternly lectured city employees about it, and seems to have changed some of his employees' phone answering habits.
On all of the major thrusts of his administration, Barry early made dramatic gestures toward improvement. He appointed a "blue-ribbon commission" on infant mortality, and printed up 300,000 brochures on birth control and prenatal care. He announced a huge new summer jobs program, and when it was over pronounced it a success. He took credit for ending the biggest crisis of his administration, the 23-day school strike in March. On housing, he held a press conference in March to announce a bold plan to "take the boards off" of 733 of the 1,019 vacant houses the city owns - by November 1980.
That's an impressive record, except that in each case what Barry has done has been somewhat less than what he said he would do.
On jobs, a team of Senate investigators found that only about 24,000 kids were hired in the program, not 30,000. Some were overpaid, others have yet to be paid. Some did real work, many did not. Anyway, jobs for kids, while a staple of Barry's political career, are not an answer to the District's unemployment problems. Bringing new businesses into the city will help, but the major ongoing projects aimed at doing that - the convention center, the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation, Hechinger Plaza - all got off the ground in the Walter Washington administration. Barry's administration has been working ardently to give a quota of 25 percent of the city's contracts to minority firms, but its courting of new businesses has been less ardent.
Doing something about infant mortality is another pressing need Walter Washington ignored, but it wasn't until last month that Barry's blue-ribbon commission received a report (the idea for which came from District employees, not the commission or Barry) that explained the likely cause of the high rate of infant deaths: "a general tenor of substandard care" in the city hospitals' obstetrical wards. The report is an important first step and will probably lead to improvements, but it means the city's much-ballyhooed brochure and other efforts to date - focusing as they did on birth control, nutrition, and postnatal care - did not address the real problem. Most of a year's activity won't help solve the problem.
On the school strike, it's true that the end came when a judge ruled on a brief that Barry filed asking for an extension of the teacher's union contract. But the extension wasn't for as long as Barry asked, and it was what the union has been petitioning the judge for all along. More generally, although improving education was a big part of his campaign platform, since taking office Barry has stressed the limited nature of his powers to improve the District's public schools. "There's not much I can do except talk about it," he says. But now, with four candidates that he endorsed serving on the school board, he should have a chance for action.
Housing, Barry says, is his "number-one priority," but again, while making it important is a good idea and the "take the boards off" program is a dramatic way of meeting the worst of the problem, the picture isn't quite as rosy as Barry paints it. For instance, over the summer the Senate turned down his request for a $4 million extra appropriation for housing, on the grounds that the programs Barry had in mind, in the words of one Senate staff member, "didn't seem to address the real need - people who can't afford houses at all."
The "flagship" of Barry's housing program is the Bates Street Project, which aims to refurbish a bleak three-block stretch of boarded-up houses and garbage 15 blocks north of the Capitol. In March, Barry held a press conference on Bates Street to kick off the development there.
Today Bates Street is an impressive sight. Most of the houses have been completely gutted. and are in various stages of attractive renovation. Festooned here and there are big signs saying: "Taking The Boards Off, Marion S. Barry Jr., Mayor." Construction crews are carting away debris, often under the watchful eyes of mothers and children from the neighborhood. If there's a single best example of what's good about the Barry administration, Bates Street would appear to be it.
In fact, the Bates Street project was conceived during Walter Washington's administration. But the project stalled because the partners weren't getting along and because of disputes with the city over how much the project would cost. So when Barry held his press conference on Bates Street in March, the Bates Street Associates were still dormant.
In May one of the developers, George Holmes, was talking to his insurance agent, Gregory Harrison, about the project's problems. Harrison suggested that Holmes call in Lawrence Brailsford, an older and more experienced developer, to get it moving again. When Brailsford came in, he met several times with city housing director Robert Moore, and Moore agreed to lend Bates Street Associates $2 million, interest free. That loan and Gregory Harrison's fortuitous suggestion to Holmes are responsible for the activity on Bates Street now. And the result of it will mostly benefit the middle class: 43 houses will sell at prices averaging $67,500 and ranging as high as $129,500; 44 will sell for from $38,000 to $45,000, with very low down payments; there will be 30 units of low-income apartments.
So far as Marion Barry is concerned, Bates Street will probably be recorded as a triumph: another situation where he moved in, broke the logjam, and created an impressive result. It will also help win him the votes of the black middle class, which will end up getting most of the units. Over and over, Barry can create examples like this to show what can be done, just as he can, over and over, make an example of himself in the same way. But to create the 6,000 new units of housing, or to really improve the schools, or to narrow significantly the economic gap between blacks and whites, will take much more than just charisma and a flair for the inspired gesture. It will mean sticking around for a while before he moves on again - which, of course, he's bound to do sooner or later.
Asked about his future plans, he says, smiling but unabashed, "I think I might run for president one day. Of course - why not? I'm capable. I'm bright enough. I'm strong enough. Anybody who can run this city successfully can be president."