EVEN IF D.C. MAYOR Marion Barry E suffers from a fuzzy personal image, he has a clear idea of what he would like Washington to be: Baltimore. He looks northeastward 40 miles and notices something that is missing in the city and government he runs. "What struck me . . . is you get such a different sense of pride, of spirit. We don't find that in D.C."
Washington is still a city in search of an identity. How do you forge a common link beween an ink-stained GPO worker and a Gucci-loafered lawyer? Or inspire a social commitment in the business community? How do you lessen the despair of the jobless and hungry and transmit a sense of caring? How do you creatively engage the churches and the bright young professionals? And how has Barry's leadership style helped or hindered that search?
The mayor of the city whose spirit Barry admires is William Donald Schaefer, a master salesman for "Bal'mer," and for himself, as a man of the people. The city's businessmen love him as much as the blue-collar residents claim him, although some community activists complain that he is more interested in a new city skyline than its people. Still, the great majority identify with his revitalization of a once rundown city and with dazzling Harborplace. They are proud of Schaefer's national image as a compassionate mayor in this era of deepening despair.
It is said, "If you don't have any wars you never discover any great generals." Schaefer's war was on his city's tarnished image.
If Walter E. Washington had the riots and their aftermath to conquer in the District, Barry's biggest war has been the city's cash-short budget. "I feel better because I have solved the budget," he remarked last week, radiating enthusiasm. But he didn't seem to understand that many D.C. residents don't see his budget performance as an unmitigated triumph. Some consider his pronouncements and actions on the budget erratic, and still others are angry because they lost their jobs.
Still, as cities go, Washington "works." It "worked" under Walter Washington and it "works" under Barry -- in spite of major administrative bloopers like the continually fouled-up water bills and a bureaucracy that's still too sluggish and uncaring. It's a very tough city to run, too.
But the voters didn't turn out Walter Washington because the city was going to hell. They chose Marion Barry because they wanted a New Generation, a New Style, an Identity, a New Spirit. But three years into Barry's term, the District of Columbia is, by his own reckoning, still a city in search of an identity.
In an interview last week, Barry boasted with pride at his summer jobs effort that employed some 19,000 youngsters this year -- even if it did take his administration three years to finally forge a workable program. He was enthusiastic about the climate he's maintained for private sector growth that has kept the tax base alive. That means much-needed jobs.
But the emphasis by Barry the Politician on what he feels are his accomplishments over the hard realities people face can be translated among the needy in the community as a lack of caring. Where is the leadership, some ask, as the recession deepens, as $46 million in federal funds is axed from such needed local programs as CETA, education, Medicaid, welfare, housing, energy assistance and Legal Services?
"Isn't it time for the mayor to get on the radio and television as he did with the budget and tell people in this community what is going on with these budget cuts?" one caller asked the other day. "We don't feel any leadership from the local government about our problems."
The mayor counters such criticism by pointing to the numerous town meetings he holds, his visits to schools and churches, his appearances on radio. No doubt people with direct access to the mayor often come away pleased. But the people who deal with the human services, with the problems of the people, feel confused and frightened and leaderless right now. It may be that the mayor is not a visible enough figure.
Has failure to articulate a bold, imaginative vision cost him the interest of some who voted for him -- part of one of the nation's brightest, most critical and politically astute communities? Does he understand the mandate of style? His leadership, some feel, hasn't yet made voters care enough to go to bat for him nor demonstrated what they can expect if they vote for him again.
Any assessment of leadership in hard economic times partly has to focus on the leader's ability, or lack of it, to arbitrate differences between competing interests. No mayor can deliver on jobs for the hard-core unemployed. So Barry understandably accents what he sees as his accomplishments. He's put "hundreds of people in jail" and cut the increase in the crime rate, he says.
The end result, however, is that the average citizen gets a fuzzy notion of Barry's vision for Washington. The man on the street isn't sure what Barry is about or what he wants this city to be about.