Those sighs of relief we're hearing all around town are coming from all of the fed-up people who are delighted at the news that Mayor Marion Barry apparently has decided not to seek reelection. It's still in the reportedly stages, of course, so he can still change his mind and keep this circus going on a little longer, but it looks like he is finally going to fold his tent and go home. Whew.
What we may witness, however, is a real no-class denouement to what has been a tragedy for the city and the mayor. The mayor, according to news reports, is peeved at the people who are pressuring him to announce he won't seek reelection. So he's going to make his public announcement of his private decision when he darn well feels like it. So there.
The Washington Times quoted one Barry administration official as saying: "It's really a matter of not allowing the media or anyone else to dictate to him. He wants to do this on his own terms." The Washington Post reported that Barry met Sunday evening with 10 longtime political advisers and told them he would cite his "frustration with the District's mounting financial problems" as his explanation for bowing out.
As if anyone would believe that.
An entire forest's worth of newsprint has been devoted in recent months to trying to figure out how Barry was going to get himself out of the biggest jam of his life. Initially, there was much speculation that he would try the entrapment defense against the single cocaine possession charge that grew out of his trip to the seventh floor of the Vista Hotel that fateful night of Jan. 18. Not a whole lot of bets were on that.
The smart money was being bet on the much more likely scenario that Barry would be able to get one juror who would refuse to find him guilty. It's not a particularly elegant legal strategy, but it had every possibility of working when there was only a simple cocaine possession charge against him. No accident, then, that by the opening of Barry's trial on June 4, the very industrious U.S. attorney, Jay B. Stephens, had secured additional indictments from the grand jury for a total of 14 counts, 11 involving drug possession and three counts of perjury, which is a felony.
The odds suddenly shifted against the mayor. In recent days, he has gone from being combative and defiant to paranoid and unstrung. In an extraordinary interview with R.H. Melton of The Washington Post, he acknowleged using crack at the Vista Hotel. He also said the government was trying to kill him by giving him a potent dose of the drug.
There are six major candidates for mayor -- five Democrats and one Republican -- and all of them have the kind of standing in the community that points to a healthy political climate that is capable of producing a worthy successor to Mayor Barry. The candidates include former police chief Maurice T. Turner Jr. and several D.C. Council members with full portfolios of experience, as well as former business executive and political activist Sharon Pratt Dixon and D.C. Del. Walter E. Fauntroy (D). D.C. Council member John Ray has raised nearly $700,000 for his campaign so far and he's got a series of first-rate commercials airing on television. By contrast, Barry's campaign has raised $3,700 since March -- a paltry sum even for a campaign that's on hold. The mayor's hard-core supporters have looked at the tote board -- and they are holding onto their money.
Barry, until recent weeks, remained the biggest factor in the mayoral campaign. He remained the candidate to beat, and no one looked capable of doing that in the primary. But Barry looks more like an obstacle than a candidate these days. This is not a man who can offer vision, programs, leadership or even energy to a city that's been beaten up by the deluge of rotten publicity he's brought to it.
In his recent interview with The Post, Barry described his odds this way: "I think the prosecutors know that in this town all it takes is one juror saying, 'I'm not going to convict Marion Barry. I don't care what you say.' "
Given the malignant state of race relations in this country, he may still be right, even after the Vista video is shown, even after the expected parade of former friends take the stand to testify against him. But what a sordid outcome that would be for the city, and for him.
There is a far nobler thing that Barry could do than he is doing now. He could announce immediately he's not going to run. He could resign immediately. And then he could tell his attorney to get a deal. If he can't get a deal he can live with, he would go on trial as a private citizen.
In any case, Marion Barry's era is over. The only question is whether he can find it in himself to end it with grace and style.