I RECENTLY HAD LUNCH with a friend. He is black and I mention that because it is important. He was angry with me. He didn't like a column I wrote and neither did a lot of other people, most of them black, but it was this guy who took the time to talk to me. It seems I owe some people and explantion.
The column in question is one that ran a week ago Sunday. In it, I compared the mayor, Marion Barry, to the late Richard Daley, mayor of the city of Chicago, boss of the Cook County Democratic organization and, fairly or unfairly, the personification of machine politics in America.
I did more than that. I hit the mayor for taking Joe Yeldell back in the city government and I mentioned how he said he never knew anything about his former wife's financial affairs -- specifically how she and two others allegedly stole about $600,000 from a nonprofit corporation. And if that wasn't enough, I threw in his defense of the practice of awarding for nothing or next to nothing a piece of the action on construction projects to certain blacks. I liked the column. I thought it was fair and accurate. My friend thought it was awful.
So, for that matter, did the mayor. He called me and yelled at me. He didn't say it was off the record, so it's fair to say he cursed me out. It's also fair to say that he says that I'm not fair to him. He wants me to write something nice about him. Just once. Maybe just once I will, but it's not my job to be nice to the mayor. It's my job to write things the way I see them.
Anyway, my friend did not yell at me the way the mayor did. He just looked hurt. He said that when it came to the construction business, blacks weren't doing anything more than what whites have always done -- what was always SOP. He said there was nothing illegal about it all and nothing immoral and nothing wrong. He said that construction was the biggest industry in this town and that nowhere could you go in all of Washington, take some little kid by the hand and point to a big building that is owned by blacks. Blacks are supposed to own the town, but they own, in the end; next to nothing.
My friend talked on. He talked about how black money is sports money or doctor money but not money you can see on the skyline. It reminded me of something a colleague had said, a black colleague. He talked about going to Atlanta and being shown the only big office building in town that was owned by blacks. The colleague told me about this and I nodded my head and wrote what I wrote anyway.
There is no sense rehashing it all here. What is written is written and there are things about the column that I do not want to take back. There are things, instead, to say and one of them is how it will never be easy to understand that it does not matter to a journalist what the race may be of the people he is writing about. It is this way with me. I couldn't care less if the mayor was green with pin stripes. He's my mayor and this is my city and I'm going to write about him.
A lot of people don't believe that, though. They believe that blacks will soon lose political control of Washington, that the town will revert to white rule and The Washington Post and I and God knows who else are conspiring to make that happen faster. Speaking for myself, all I want -- all I really ever want -- is a subject for a column.
Anyway, to get back to my lunch with my friend. He is not one who believes in conspiracy theories, but he knows people who do and he asked me to keep them in mind when I write. I went back and read what I wrote and I think my friend might have been telling me something.
There was a certain breeziness of style that some people might have found offensive. There was a certain linkage -- a black lawyer, a black partner in the nonprofit corporation -- that seemed to be based on nothing more than race. They were both black. That is not the I intended it to read, that is the way it could have been read. I am sorry for that.
We forget sometimes that there are special sensitivities out there. In the simple matter of building ownership, for instance, blacks and white sometimes see different things in the skyline. I saw what I saw and I wrote it. It is my job and I thought I was right. But what I was being told at lunch that day is that being right is often not enough. You have to be sensitive, too, and I could see from the look in his eyes that I had not been. I told him I was sorry.
And he told me I was right about the mayor.