With his recent remarks about the Atlanta child murder victims being black instead of Jewish, C.C. Mayor Marion Barry may have touched a responsive chord among Washington's blacks. But in the process, Barry has, in one fell swoop, infuriated Jews, sent his own advisers cringing and revived old criticisms that the former street activist is still too rough and unpolished for the city's top job.
The Washington area Jewish community was understandably upset when Barry said that if the 20 children mudered in Atlanta "had been Jewish, the federal government would have moved faster" to provide federal funds for the investigation. For Jews, who immediately began screaming for Barry's scalp, it was a no-win situation. Either Barry did not mean to single out Jews specifically -- in which case he was insensitive -- or worse, he did know exactly what the was saying by singling out Jews -- in which case the remark was a calculated, divisive, racist ploy for black votes.
For Barry's aides and advisers, the remark was the latest in a series of highly publicized verbal gaffes that have caused them to wonder why two years in office have not taught the mayor to watch his mouth. In the words of one top Barry aide: "He's impulsive sometimes. But he hasn't learned that what he says is news, whether he thinks it is or not."
Meanwhile, some of Barry's critics and potential political opponents immediately seized on the latest remark as evidence of Barry's lack of political sophistication. They gleefully recalled Barry's ill-timed 1977 characterization of Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) as "this little rinky-dink senator." Barry later apologized to Leahy, then chairman of the Senate District Appropriations subcommittee, but the incident left Barry's more polished political adversaries shaking their heads and saying, "He's not ready" to be mayor.
Now, said one prominent Barry critic, "Even if people think that way in their hearts (about the Atlanta situation), they don't think the mayor of the city should be standing up there saying those things. People think Marion is turning into another Doug Moore with all those crazy statements."
However, the mayor's remark about Jews seems a typical of Barry, who is regarded as one of the best roadshows in District politics. He can clearly hold his own in the give-and-take of press conference banter. Unlike his predecessor, Walter Washington, he meets regularly with the press each month.
Press secretary Alan Grip said part of the problem is Barry's tendency to answer any question put to him by a reporter, a modicum of open government that has sometimes landed Barry's foot squarely in his mouth.
Other Barry aides see the problem in terms of the mayor still adjusting to his job. "I think he is still learning," said Delano Lewis, Barry's public relations adviser, "that he is the mayor and he's going to have to be a little more circumspect. It's different than being a council member or a school board member or an activist."
But to others, that explanation does not square with Barry's usual adroitness in dealing with the press, which as many of his critics wondering whether the recent Jewish remark was more calculated than offhanded.
"That was a political statement," said one of Barry's political opponents. "I think the mayor has been trying to consolidate the black community around him. The statement benefits him politically. There is sort of plan to pull himself up as concerned about the black city."
It's the latter possibility that most infuriated Jews and many other whites, who see Barry in political trouble with blacks and trying to broaden his base by discreetly playing racial politics. That is why many are hoping that the remark reflected only a lack of good judgment. But as one opponent said, "If he's that dumb, he shouldn't be up there."