ONE OF MY FAVORITE stock movie characters was the guy who always got the point late. He would be told something, take it all in, start to go on his way and then do a double take with a one-two snap of the neck. I'm glad he doesn't live in Washington. If he did, his neck would have snapped off a long time ago.
In the Washington of Mayor Marion Barry, nothing is as it first appears. You only have to wait a short while to learn that something you have been told ain't necessarily so. Usually the double takes are about little things, but they tend to add up. The wise thing always is simply to wait to see if the mayor means what he says.
Just recently, for instance, the mayor announced a hiring freeze. This was done with great fanfare on the part of the mayor, who challenged everyone in sight to come up with a better plan. No hiring. Got it? That's final. The city's in trouble. Get with the program.
One . . . two.
Guess what? He didn't mean it. He had this absolutely essential job to fill. Arts coordinator. Got to have one. No city worth its name is without one. He had to have a certain lady named Sara Vass. She has lots of experience in the arts. She once worked on television and as a disc jockey.
The mayor, of course, had his explanation, Vass had really been hired before the freeze. And anyway she was being paid with federal funds, which are, as we all know, sort of like play money. That they were CETA funds designed to be used for poor people was not mentioned. Vass is among the little-heralded Georgetown poor.
Plunging on, first we had a budget deficit of oh, $17 million. One . . . two. Okay, make it more. Make it in fact $172 million and don't bet your head won't snap back when you get the final figure. As for the budget crisis itself, one day recently the mayor insisted it was a serious problem but not a "crisis" and then later that night he went on television to explain why he could not give the police department more money. Ready? The city was in the throes of a budget "crisis."
My old friend from the movies would be exhausted by now, but I have just warmed up. Are you ready? You remember, of course, the city's unpaid protocol chief. He was getting, we were told, nothing for his services. How big of him! Isn't it terrific the way the mayor can find these people. One . . . two. It turned out he was being paid all along.
The next double take comes on the small and petty matter of the mayor's wife's salary. He told reporters his wife earned something like $60,000 a year. This is a healthy sum and you might ask why she was getting this kind of money from a consulting firm, but if you did ask you would be told -- one . . . two -- that this is not what she was making. The mayor after a while said she was making quite a bit less. He didn't explain why he had lied the first time. Maybe it was not to break his string of never telling the truth on minor matters.
Next comes a not-so-minor matter -- his home mortgage. First he said it was a standard one at the standard interest rate and then -- one . . . two -- it turned out to be a half point less than that and then -- one . . . two -- it turned out to be 3 1/4 points less than that. Fooled you again, huh?
There have been some other double takes. About the time the mayor announced the budget crisis and said he was freezing everything in sight, he raised the salaries and promoted some of his key assistants. He defended this by saying that these promotions and raises were in the works before the freeze. He said nothing about setting an example for the rest of the city.
Last we come to the case of the Washington Hilton and its plans to expand at the expense of three apartment buildings nearby. During his moyoral campaign, Barry said he was against hotel expansion at the expense of the three buildings. One . . . two.. Now he's for it. He changed his mind, he said.
Maybe he did. Maybe he sincerely changed his mind after having the chance to look the situation over and maybe the same thing happended with the salary increases and the hiring of Vass. It's hard to tell, though. In just one year in office, the mayor has compiled a record of not being totally frank with the public, of issuing proclamations that have footnotes and appendixes he doesn't mention, and having his fingers crossed a bit when he says something and then saying that these are minor matters, anyway. They are. But they add up and there are still three years to go.
I don't know if my neck can take it.