Barry Brings Halt to Turbulent D.C. Saga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 22, 1998; Page A01
The rise and fall -- and rise and fall -- of Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr. is an almost mythic saga of race, politics and power that has dominated the District's collective psyche, for better or for worse, since the 1960s.
All it lacks is an ending -- and that appears to be at hand.
He came to town as a young civil rights activist, led a bus boycott and moved seamlessly into mainstream politics, marching inexorably to the mayor's office. He started out as a reformer but evolved into a machine boss who dominated politics for more than a decade, even as he gradually lost control.
He descended into alcoholism, drug addiction and womanizing and finally fell in disgrace, having been caught on videotape smoking crack cocaine in an FBI sting. After being imprisoned, he resurrected his political career and rode a redemptive wave back to power, only to fall again to congressional Republicans who methodically whittled away at his power until he had little authority left.
In a dramatic manner, Barry announced yesterday that he will not run for a fifth term as mayor, acknowledging that the "mean-spirited Republican Congress" will never restore home rule as long as he remains in office.
Barry, 62, the first black activist to have been elected mayor of a major city, remains the District's most charismatic -- and controversial -- political figure, a man who has defined and dominated Washington's modern political landscape even as he eventually divided its electorate along racial lines.
His early years as a street activist and much of his first term as mayor were marked by compassion, energy and an almost uncanny talent for connecting with people from all walks of life, particularly the poor and disenfranchised.
"Ask the people who he's helped," said Ronald Walters, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland. "One of the reasons Barry was able to come back into office [after his release from prison] is that these people he's helped over the years haven't forgotten him. . . . At the end of the day, you've got to explain why this guy has been able to maintain a power base."
But Barry's penchant for alcohol, drugs and women -- evident to those around him years before his conviction for drug possession in 1990 -- gradually overwhelmed his obvious talents during his second and third terms as mayor, from 1983 to 1990.
The mayor's personal indiscretions mirrored an equally sharp decline in his public performance. By the end of his third term, his bloated government had been rocked by one scandal after another while residents complained bitterly about inadequate city services. After five years of robust growth and healthy surpluses, the District's finances were suddenly running seriously in the red, and the city's per-capita homicide rate became the highest in the nation.
"Some governments are corrupt but are known for their competency in running the city," then-Sen. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.) told Barry at a budget hearing in 1989. "Others are incompetent but considered clean. [Washington's] government is scandalously corrupt and hopelessly incompetent."
Although Barry's reelection in 1994 marked a stunning personal and political comeback after his conviction and six months in prison, his fourth term as mayor has extracted a high price from his constituents. Republicans in Congress, frustrated by Barry's inability to reform the massive bureaucracy he built, virtually suspended home rule last summer, transferring nearly all of Barry's remaining power to the D.C. financial control board.
"So much of the modern history of the District is bound up in the biography of Marion Barry," said Jamin B. Raskin, a law professor at American University. "Every political leader has weaknesses, but his weaknesses became tragic for home rule in Washington."
He also used the city's bureaucracy as a vast employment program to help foster the growth of the black middle class, hiring more municipal employees than any other city in America.
"This is a guy who came in and said, 'Let's employ people who need jobs,' and the door was wide open," said Lawrence Guyot, a longtime civil rights activist and ardent Barry supporter. "Marion Barry is guilty as hell of that. Marion Barry employed a lot of people, he made a lot of people middle class, he put a lot of people through college, he paid a lot of rent."
But Barry's populist legacy is marked by paradox.
Barry's critics say that despite his populist rhetoric, Washington's most needy people -- public housing residents, foster children, inmates, the mentally ill -- fared miserably during the mayor's time in office. City agencies serving all four groups performed so poorly that they had to be placed in court-ordered receivership.
"I think he's been a disaster," said Robert Woodson, an iconoclastic activist who founded the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise. "The only people who came out ahead are the people who work administering these programs that are failing the poor."
Barry's critics also hold him responsible for systematic mismanagement of the D.C. police department. According to Carl T. Rowan Jr., a former FBI agent and an advocate for police reform, Barry inherited a police department "of inspirational quality" and "took steps that diminished the force qualitatively as well as quantitatively."
"Patronage in the guise of local 'empowerment' has always been the hallmark of Barry's governing philosophy," Rowan wrote in a recent New Republic article. "Thus, he saw the [police department] in much the same way as he saw the city's civilian bureaucracy: as a source of jobs for people whose main qualification was their eligibility to vote for Barry."
During the 1994 mayoral campaign, Carol Schwartz, Barry's Republican opponent, contended that the mayor's drug use was partly to blame for the city's "tragic" homicide rate.
"His addiction," she said, "unfortunately compromised his ability to fight the drug dealing that was killing our youth."
Barry conceded during the campaign that his past efforts at fighting the twin evils of drugs and homicide had not been as effective as they could have been. But there was nothing he or anyone else could have done, he said, to keep Washington from becoming the nation's murder capital.
Five years earlier, Barry had said, "I'm not going to let murder be the gauge [of police effectiveness], since we're not responsible for murders, can't stop the murders."
He attributed this conclusion to Police Chief Isaac Fulwood Jr.
"I thought we could," Barry said. "They told me we couldn't."
To which Fulwood angrily responded, "I never said that."
Barry once described himself as "a situationist."
"I do what is necessary for the situation," he said, just before a victory in the 1978 Democratic primary propelled him to power.
The "situationist" in Barry would resurface throughout his career.
"Even in the '60s," he told an interviewer in 1979, "my anger was a matter of the times, a matter of style."
In the heat of the 1986 mayoral race, he disavowed his 1978 statement that elected officials had a "moral responsibility" to send their children to public schools.
"Just tactics on that one," the mayor said.
And early last year, with the control board cutting his cherished social programs, Barry said there would be "blood in the streets," only to pull back a couple of days later.
"Just a generic street term," he demurred.
"Marion Barry is a guy who loves politics and loves power and loves people," Guyot said. "He has an ego that will match anyone's in America. But there is a steady stream in Marion Barry's life -- making the political system work for people it wouldn't have worked for."
Author David Halberstam, who covered Barry's civil rights activism in the 1950s for the Nashville Tennessean, examines the mayor's career at length and arrives at a different conclusion in a new book on the civil rights movement, "The Children."
"One reason he was so good at the political game, some of his friends thought, was because so little of it really meant anything to him; he was largely free of causes, save his own. His agenda was always primarily about himself," wrote Halberstam, a 1964 Pulitzer Prize winner for his reporting from Vietnam.
Among the most ironic aspects of his tenure was Barry's use of race when it suited his political interests. When he first ran for mayor, in 1978, Barry capitalized on strong support from affluent whites in Northwest Washington to win a three-way contest in the Democratic primary.
"One thing that impressed me in that period from 1971 to 1978," recalled Dwight S. Cropp, a former Barry cabinet member who has become an outspoken critic, "was that he was inclusive -- absolutely inclusive."
Once in office, however, Barry increasingly defined himself in racial terms and used the city's government to redress racial inequities -- issues blacks found far more compelling than whites did.
By his first reelection campaign in 1982, when mismanagement and cronyism were major issues, Barry had lost most of his white support. By his second reelection campaign in 1986, when mismanagement and corruption were dominant themes sounded by his opponents, Barry had lost virtually all of it, leaving the city's electorate polarized along racial lines.
And by the time of his redemptive campaign for mayor in 1994, Barry skillfully manipulated racial sensibilities by charging that he had been targeted for prosecution by federal authorities for years -- an allegation for which he had, in fact, more than a little evidence.
Randall Kennedy, a Harvard University law professor, wrote in the Atlantic Monthly during the campaign that Barry's enduring appeal among African American voters "is owing in part to his willingness and ability to portray himself as a victim of white racism."
"Everybody plays the race card to their own advantage," Chuck Stone, a noted journalist who served with Barry on the board of the Black United Front in the District almost 30 years ago, said in a recent interview. "And he's done it, too. I think he's perfected the art."
"The thing that's most depressing to me is the loss of the moral and political energy of the civil rights movement that came to rest in the District," Raskin said. "There was a sense that Washington could become the shining jewel of interracial politics, and that hope was quickly lost, and racial politics became ascendant."
For the same reason, Cropp looks back with a sense of anguish at the years he worked for Barry.
"It's a real tragedy when you remember that sense of enthusiasm we all had when we were campaigning for [Barry] in 1978," Cropp said.
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