The Mayor With Something for Everyone
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 22, 1998; Page F01
Marion Barry won 17 elections in Washington and lost only one. If he were a football team he would be declared a dynasty. This is what the late-night joke writers never understood as they spun their anti-Barry punch lines: A lot of people liked -- a lot of people loved -- Marion Barry.
In large part, it's because the mayor is an unusual blend of crude and smooth, street and suite, kente cloth and pinstripe. He's that rare inside-the-Beltway outsider who's both of the establishment and against it.
"I'm a situationist," Barry once boasted. "I do what is necessary for the situation."
In his heyday, friends recall, he would leave a meeting of downtown bankers and head up U Street for lunch at Ben's Chili Bowl, his limo parked out front, strutting through the door like he owned the place but greeting folks like he was a bus driver on break.
For Barry, it was the perfect segue -- a reflection of his utopian view of D.C., a metaphor for his leadership.
Thrond gravitas and old-fashioned shoe leather, he managed to make friends in every corner of the District and demonstrate an uncommon resiliency for an American politician. In the 33 years since Barry landed in Washington to head the local office of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, he has been fearless and exciting and brazen and commanding.
Sure, at times he has plumbed the ugly depths of racial politics and turned the American tradition of political patronage into his own employment empire. But actually, he was the ultimate provisional politician, demonstrating time and again an uncanny ability to capture the moment and turn scraps into gravy. Washingtonians like fighters and survivors, and Barry used his Everyman image to cultivate more voting pals than voting enemies.
What Barry strived for, ultimately, was authenticity: Here was a mayor who could clear the way for rich white developers to build up downtown and still get his "props" in poor neighborhoods.
At different times in his career, he's been loved by different people. It's easy to forget -- in the tenor of these Barry-as-national-joke times -- that he was once feted in Georgetown salons as the savior of the city. Back in 1978, he carried some Georgetown precincts by 2-to-1 margins in his upset of incumbent Mayor Walter Washington and Council Chairman Sterling Tucker. Back then, Ward 3, west of Rock Creek Park, was one of his strongholds. And Ward 8, in far Southeast and Anacostia, was where Barry struggled against his rivals.
Of course, the situation is reversed now. But if you search old newspaper clippings you will discover such ironic gems as this 1978 quotation from a "leading city Democrat" worried about Barry's ascension: "He represents the people who are trying to take over the community, whites and the upper class, the ultra liberals and the gays and The Washington Post."
The quote illustrates just how eclectic Barry's political tenure has been.
"The mayor isn't a normal politician," says his friend and political associate Marshall Brown, who has been at his side for 32 years. "He had pockets of strength all over the whole city. He would deal with people the rest of the politicians wouldn't even talk to."
Brown remembers how during Barry's 1982 reelection campaign, the mayor would hold court late at night in the basement of the Montana Terrace housing project, drinking Kool-Aid from a jar. He remembers Barry fighting for kids to have block parties in Ward 5 back in the '60s when it was difficult to get permits for such occasions. He remembers Barry leading a disruption of the crowning of the Cherry Blossom Queen -- always white -- by ushering to the stage a young black woman with an Afro. The Barry-led protesters then crowned her "Miss Free D.C." and were promptly arrested.
Such life-shaping experiences are not forgotten.
"People are always asking, 'Why are you still with this brother?' Because I know the other side," says Brown.
Years ago, after one of Brown's sons had gotten into trouble with the law and the other was struggling in school, Barry offered to let them ride with him in the chauffeured mayoral car. Sometimes he would meet with the boys on Saturdays.
"My sons got a chance to see a black person who was somebody," says Brown, who credits Barry's involvement with helping to turn them around. "Today, one has graduated from Johns Hopkins, he has his master's. The other has graduated from Georgetown, he has his master's."
Barry has long paid special attention to society's most neglected classes -- notably its young and its senior citizens. Watch him work a retirement center and you can see a connection that began a quarter-century ago. Watch him on a playground and you know he has street credentials.
But whether he is with them or with the titans of commerce, he still exudes an aura of assuredness that soaks up a room.
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) noticed this back in the late '50s when he first encountered Barry in Nashville. Every Tuesday night in the basement of Clark Memorial United Methodist Church, a missionary named James Lawson would conduct weekly workshops on the philosophies and tactics of nonviolent action. For the 20-odd students attending, some of whom would emerge as pivotal figures in the civil rights movement -- "the New Gandhians" they would be called -- these workshops became the center of their lives.
In his new memoir, "Walking With the Wind," Lewis describes "a tall, lanky, cool -- very cool -- chemistry major from Fisk" who became a regular at the sessions in the fall of 1959.
"He was older than most of us, a graduate student, and he had the confidence that comes with those couple of extra years. Suave, very suave, from his nicely pressed shirts down to his sleek calf-length socks, Marion would claim his corner of the room and spread himself out, everything about his presence saying, 'Here I am.' He wasn't arrogant, and he wasn't loud or pushy. He was simply relaxed, confident, comfortable with himself."
There is a tendency sometimes to underestimate how smart and analytical Barry is, to get distracted by his swagger and dialect and presence. Elijah Rogers recalls when he flew to Washington in 1978 to be interviewed for a job by Mayor-elect Barry.
"You have a perception, but he disarms you," says Rogers. "And when you leave, you say, 'This is a really bright guy.' "
And a persuasive guy. Rogers, who was at the time city manager of Berkeley, Calif., was up for a position as city manager in Richmond. He had dreamed of being the first black city manager in the South. But as the interview wound up, Barry asked him a pointed question: "Wouldn't you rather be city administrator in the nation's capital than city manager in the capital of the Confederacy?"
"And flying back from Washington to Berkeley, that stayed with me," recalls Rogers, who accepted Barry's offer. "I can honestly say that in all my years of local government it was the most rewarding experience I ever had. There was this energy, of young African Americans coming to the nation's capital to demonstrate that young African Americans could run a major city. We had some of the best and brightest you could find. We were going to turn this city around."
John Hechinger Sr., patriarch of one of the city's most prominent business families, has watched Barry from his rabble-rousing days to his exit speech yesterday. And he's still an admirer. "I think he has been fighting a rap, sometimes a bad rap," says Hechinger. "But the fact is, we've got to look at the good years . . . at the enthusiasm and excitement that he brought to town in those first years. And I think once we get over the personal habits, which really sunk him in some respects, he really will turn out to be a historic figure."
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