My head and my heart are telling me two different things about U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson's hard sentence on Mayor Marion Barry.
My heart goes out to him, as it would to almost any person facing the possibility of serving time behind bars. But I feel especially bad when it comes to Barry because of his civil rights record, his service to the city and his position of leadership. We have not heard the end of this case, however, because an appeal is being planned.
But I am having a serious heart and head coordination problem because I continue to ask myself two questions: How could he have come to this place and how could it have been avoided?
What I am about to say may seem self-serving, but that is certainly not its intent. I wrote in March 1989 that the escalating drug violence in the city, coupled with the swirling rumors about Barry's own drug use that engulfed him after his unexplained association with Charles Lewis, demanded that Barry step down from office.
My reasoning at that point was to avoid precisely what now stands between this community and peace with itself -- the continued emotional splitting of this city over Marion Barry.
What, I ask myself, might have happened had he stepped down earlier, an act that would not necessarily have been an admission of any wrongdoing; simply one of a man who was then clearly exhausted and needed help?
What would have happened had he made a courageous and graceful appeal for understanding before the infamous FBI sting at the Vista Hotel, instead of at the ninth inning when it smacked to his critics of insincerity and tardiness?
At the least, it would have protected his legacy as a civil rights fighter and as one who had made outstanding contributions to this city. Instead, that legacy of courage and foresight has been replaced with the tape of his smoking crack at the Vista Hotel.
In many ways, while the Vista tape will now be his epitaph because that is the beginning of the drama that earned him worldwide publicity, Barry does not deserve so singularly tragic an ending. I can't help feeling that his advisers, "friends," sycophants and hangers-on -- people who benefited and those who hoped to benefit from his position -- failed him in some crucial ways.
They all failed to give him what everybody in a position of responsibility vitally needs -- somebody who will be honest with him, even at the risk of unpopularity. Had some of those people offered tough love, genuine friendship and sincerity, he might have avoided the scene he now is in. Had they confronted him about his cocaine abuse and counseled in the most urgent terms that he receive help, he might have been steered toward a different course.
This in no way excuses Barry from taking responsibility for his own actions, and he is ultimately responsible for taking or not taking counsel. But credible conversation to which I am privileged suggests there were hosts of people around him, who are themselves responsible individuals, who benefited one way or another from his leadership, but did not give him as good as they got.
It has been said that the first indication of the wisdom of a leader is the advisers he or she chooses. If he is wise he will choose people who will be diplomatic but will not fail the crucial test of making the leader do what has to be done. I cannot help believing that no sufficiently strong effort was made in the case of Marion Barry. He apparently was not able to count on the people who counted on him.
Much has been said about Barry's arrogance -- in part it led to the tough sentence he received in court. Like Adam Clayton Powell, he sassed the establishment and was broken by that establishment. But the people who surrounded Barry knew as well as he that society has it in for strong black males. They also knew there is unequal justice. They should have helped him be purer than Caesar's wife.
As we try to move forward in this city, I hope the Barry case will be a lesson not only to those who lead but also to those who surround the leader. For if Barry had gotten as good as he gave this sorry end may not have come to pass.