The Washington Post
Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar

Related Items
  • Main Story
  •   Hizzoner, Working the Town

    By Marc Fisher
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, May 22, 1998; Page F01

    At noon yesterday, a dedicated few gathered across from the Russell Senate Office Building for Stand Up for Democracy Day, a couple of dozen District residents appealing to the solons on the Hill to return self-rule to Washington.

    Half an hour into the event, as the group was dispersing, the blue Lincoln pulled up to the corner, a security man opened the back door and Marion Barry stepped out, slipped on his black suit jacket and waded into the assemblage, head high, his manner at once regal and street.

    "Stand up for democracy!" the mayor shouted three times. "Martin King always said to us: If there are unjust laws, you should stand up by any means necessary."

    Barry surveyed the thin group, lifted a tiny, weak bullhorn, and said, "Every revolution starts with a small number of people. Don't be discouraged by the numbers. Fired up! Ain't gonna take it anymore!"

    With that, he returned to his Lincoln. The visit lasted less than three minutes.

    Four hours later, in a packed D.C. Council chamber, flanked by his proud minister, his smiling wife and his nervous, silent son, Barry appeared to announce the end of an unprecedented era of achievement and failure, selflessness and self-aggrandizement, power and humiliation.

    On this long-awaited day of decision, Marion Barry the civil rights leader, Marion Barry the pol and Marion Barry the advertisement for himself faced an audience teeming with people from nearly every phase of his kaleidoscopic life.

    The largest contingent was made up of his allies from the civil rights era, like the mayor older and thicker now, balding and gray, many grown wise, some grown cynical. For them, Barry the civil rights leader had a message: Yesterday's fight is today's fight, from the lunch counters in the battle against the Man to the halls of Congress in the fight against those who would "recolonize our souls," as Barry said of the Republican Congress that so despises him.

    The mayor read a roll call of soldiers of the '60s -- Jesse Jackson, Andrew Young, Julian Bond, Ivanhoe Donaldson -- and Marion Barry. "We were the brave band of young people who risked our lives," he said.

    After the speech, Lawrence Guyot, a veteran of that time and a longtime Barry loyalist now supporting Carol Schwartz for mayor, said, "Marion Barry represented courage in the rawest sense. When we were being hunted down, Marion was there."

    Making the Rounds

    Three hours before his announcement, the mayor traveled to the D.C. Armory, the fading barn where he has held countless victory parties, rallies and meet 'n' greets. The room has a dark, dank feel these days, and a few tinsel streamers do little to add cheer. But when Barry stepped onstage at the city's annual Seniors Day lunch, 4,000 old folks came alive. People rose from their seats, moved to the center, edged forward for a handshake, a hug, a look.

    It's his smile and his eyes, his soaring voice, with its blend of Deep South and Baptist preacher and civil rights agitator and big-city politician. His pitch to this audience is at once genuine and pandering, delivered with such sweetness, such ease. Barry has worked this city's seniors for more than a quarter of a century, and it's no wonder that many of them genuinely believe that if he leaves the scene, they will be left to rot.

    "Give yourself a round of applause!" the mayor said, mike in hand, jacket off. "Give God some praise also! With all that I've been through, I still have joy. Joy they can't take away from me!"

    There were murmurs of assent, shouts of encouragement.

    The mayor broke into a dance, a quick shuffle, as he lauded the seniors. "I love our seniors," he said. "You want to make me angry, just mess with some seniors."

    This is why the man won elections, this is what made his choice so hard: He knew he could do it again. From memory, he summoned a long list of citizen activists to the stage -- commissioners, block captains, the footmen of the Barry army he has called on time and again, with utter confidence that no matter what he has done, they will stand with him.

    He invited the winners of the Miss D.C. Senior beauty contest to join him, and they were radiant in their ruby sashes. "All you beautiful seniors," the mayor said, "with your ribbons on. Come on now," and the crowd responded with waves of applause.

    It's a routine Barry has been through hundreds of times. And the seniors love it still. "Who's the oldest person in the house?" the mayor called. "I got a special present for you. A $100 bill, out of my own personal money. My money, that I earned."

    And then he wound down. Was there perhaps a trace of melancholy in his voice, a touch of regret? "I want to thank you for your love, thank you for your support over the years." A pause, and then a word to the band behind him.

    The band tentatively struck up a bluesy line, the mayor leaned into the mike, and when he straightened, he belted out lyrics from deep in his gut: "Well, they call it stormy Monday, but Tuesday's just as bad." He was hard into it now, and the seniors pushed forward, dancing, nodding their heads and even joining in.

    "Thursday is also saaaaaaad," Barry sang. He growled some lines now. The Mississippi in Marion Barry filled the room. "I get down on my knees and pray . . . ." He kneeled forward, then rose for a shout: "Looooord have mercy, Lord have mercy on my soullll." And he added a final line, his voice rising to a light, airy finish: "I'm gonna move, I'm gonna move to the outskirts of town."

    As the mayor descended from the stage, he was surrounded by elderly women seeking hugs, kisses and handshakes. An announcer introduced D.C. Council member Jack Evans, who is running for mayor. There was no response whatsoever.

    A TV reporter asked Barry if he had the blues. "Don't have the blues, though I may sing them, I don't have them," came the reply.

    "He's tired," said Audrey Conyers, a Barry loyalist who got a big hug from the mayor. "Marion needs to step down and enjoy life. It makes me sad to see him go. They are kicking his butt, just like they're doing Clinton. . . . He needs a rest. He's been needing it a long time."

    Stand-Up Day

    At the Council chambers, Barry the pol worked the room as he had so many others. He received five standing ovations during his half-hour withdrawal speech, and the two longest honored his commitment to the city's seniors and his persistent campaign to find summer jobs for kids.

    Barry has always focused his rhetoric on the same downtrodden groups -- "the homeless, uneducated, ex-offenders, unemployed, young people, seniors . . . the real basis for my real years of service." Just how much he achieved for the less fortunate is for history to judge, but Barry portrayed himself as their champion. Many of his friends and staffers had assumed that Barry would announce his departure before his crowd, before the people who wore those "Barry Time" T-shirts back in 1994, the ones that said "Get Over It" on the back.

    But the Barry who bowed out yesterday was beholden to neither the loyalists of Anacostia nor the opportunists of K Street. He was the Barry who could bridge a city of great gulfs, an operator, a man of charismatic gifts, enormous political savvy and tragic personal flaws.

    The Barry who reveled in self-promotion would face the moment head on, looking into the hot mikes and live cameras and sniping reporters through whom he had created the greatest political character the District has known.

    His final message, wrapped in the layered oratory of the church, the street and the boardroom, was as simple and traditional and contrarian as ever:

    Marion Barry got people jobs. That was his task as civil rights leader. It was his tool as a big-city pol of the boom-boom '80s. And it was what made it possible for Barry to remain mayor for 16 of the past 20 years.

    The people who came out to say farewell included many who got from Barry the first job in which they could wear a suit. Yesterday, he talked about his "most important service . . . my efforts to strengthen minority business."

    "Look at us now," he said. Everywhere in the city, there are blacks who got jobs from the mayor and made it. And now they were making important decisions in every city agency. And their children would go to good colleges and get good jobs without needing a Marion Barry.

    Barry is a prideful man, only grudgingly admitting to his faults, yet powerfully eloquent about his achievements. What he seemed proudest of in the end were those jobs he gave out, those lives he helped change, those people he enabled to move from the city's poorest quarters "to Ward 4, to the Gold Coast, and the Silver Coast." He beamed with every word.

    And then someone in the audience added one more location: "To Mitchellville," the Prince George's County neighborhood to which many middle-class black families have moved to escape Barry's foundering city.

    If the mayor heard the crack, he did not show it. He never would.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

    Back to the top

    Navigation Bar
    Navigation Bar