A Mayor Who Looks Tough to Beat Bert Brilliant writes a column for The Daily Planet. Norman Naive is one of the young up-and-comers who sits a few desks away. Every few days, they go have Chinese food and good Dutch beer and figure ways to make the world a perfect place.
"You started working on that Barry piece yet, Norman?"
"(Munch, munch) Yup."
"You talked to any of Hizzoner's enemies yet?"
"(Gulp, swallow) I dare you to find me some."
"You know, Norman, for a simpering, whimpering, wet-behind-the-ears youngster, you are sometimes pretty smart. You just wrote your whole piece right there. In one sentence."
"Real good, Bert. More wonderful career guidance from The Great Mahatma himself. I can see it now. The desk asks me, 'What do you need for that Barry piece, Norman? Eighteen inches? Twenty?' And I say, 'No, all I need is one sentence. Bert Brilliant told me so.' We'd both be parking cars at the PMI the next morning."
"Relax, Sonny. All I was trying to do was to pay you a compliment. I think you're absolutely right that Marion Barry has no enemies. He has people who are jealous of him. He has people who are contemptuous of him. But enemies? Not the way Harold Washington or Ed Koch have them."
"And the funny thing is that he probably should. That housing scandal he had -- on Bates Street, wasn't it? -- that was a bad one. All that trouble his advisers are getting into -- that doesn't win you any friends. And the actual day-to-day running of the city still leaves a lot of room for improvement. It can still take you a whole day to get a set of license plates down at that place on C Street. And Marion Barry promised it wouldn't. He said he'd fix that."
"An even better example is the way he has bent over backwards to be nice to President Reagan. Remember, this is a mayor whose constituents have no power of the purse. They have no congressional representation. They have unemployment and truancy and drug addiction rates that extra federal money would go a long way toward helping. But the president has done almost nothing to help the city. And not only hasn't Marion Barry asked for much help, he hasn't complained very loudly when he hasn't gotten it. You would think this silence would make somebody angry."
"I think it's partly the era we live in, Bert. If a guy looks good on TV -- and Barry looks very good on TV -- people tend to get lulled to sleep. They think Barry must be doing as good a job as anybody could do. If he isn't, if he's not managing things too crisply or not telling the president where to get off, well, people are too tired or discouraged to care very much. Reagan benefits from the same thing, incidentally. Go ask a college student who's in danger of losing his student loan, thanks to the Reagan budget. He'll say, 'Well, I realize the president is going to make it impossible for me to go to college. But when I see him on TV, he still makes me feel proud to be an American.' Amazing, I know -- but it's all over the place."
"Norman, don't you think Marion Barry could be in trouble come election time next year? I mean, he has never won anything close to a landslide victory. And now he has alienated a lot of the people who used to be his supporters -- the West-of-the-Park whites, the BMW blacks, some of the gays. How can you win reelection if people are losing faith in you?"
"But who have they transferred their faith to, Bert? Do you see anybody out there who could give Marion Barry a serious run for the roses? I don't."
"Somebody might surface. Somebody on the City Council, maybe."
"Waiter, will you please take this soy sauce away? My friend here has been sniffing it, I'm afraid. The City Council, Bert? The D.C. City Council? Maybe in Philly or San Francisco somebody on the city council would have the reputation and the clout. But the D.C. City Council is a little short on commanding figures, I'd say. If you'd been elected by 8 percent of the registered voters in your ward, you wouldn't be too commanding, either."
"But haven't we gone beyond the point of electing a guy -- or reelecting him -- just because nobody's worse? We've had some form of home rule here for more than 20 years, Norman. Are we still seeing things in terms of apathy and a lack of political sophistication?"
"It looks that way to me, old man. It looks to me the way it must have looked at the very beginning of home rule -- a city without much of a handle on what to do about its problems and without the tradition of a two-fisted, hard-fighting mayor that other cities have always had. We're still the kind of city that takes a look at Marion Barry and says, 'Well, at least he's a known quantity. At least he won't be an embarrassment.' I tell you, it looks to me as if Barry is going to ride that all the way to another term."
Just then, the fortune cookies arrived.
"Next Thursday?" asked Bert.
"Next Thursday," said Norman.
And they shuffled back to the office.