D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams showed up for breakfast the other day and ordered oatmeal and dry wheat toast, a healthy but rather boring selection. But then he proceeded to spruce it up with bananas and brown sugar, and ended up making a downright tasty meal.
That could be a metaphor for what this city has done to Williams during his first year in office. He is clearly being transformed, from wholesome and admittedly boring to something approaching spiced up and good for you, too.
The report is already in on what Williams has done for the city, such as come through on 20 of 28 promises he made a year ago to improve basic city services, while still struggling with serious shortcomings that include a lack of oversight in issuing city contracts and continued neglect of the homeless and mentally ill.
What the experience has done to Williams has been more subtle. But, like the changes that occurred over the years in his predecessor, Marion Barry, they can prove to be the ones that make the most difference in the long run.
Notice, for example, that Williams's pant cuffs now tend to break stylishly over the tops of his shoes, whereas during his campaign they were up to his ankles.
"I had to say goodbye to the flood-water pants," he said. "Diane [his wife] bought me some longer ones."
It's a sign that he is starting to care more about what people think of him. And not just sartorially, but politically as well.
"When I was the city's chief financial officer, all I had to concentrate on was the bottom line," he said, recalling the days when he could label a group of city employees incompetent and summarily fire them.
"But as the mayor, I have to think before I speak, and I have to work the steps to get to the bottom line. I have laid out an employee evaluation plan to let people know what I expect. Some may make it, some may not. But at least they know in advance."
He said he still believes that there are people in the D.C. government who don't know what they are doing, but he won't publicly call them incompetent anymore.
"That's not how you build a team and, worse, I found out that it invites racial connotations that I didn't intend," he said. "From now on, that's going to be dealt with in-house, like a family thing."
At a church rally in Southeast Washington last week, Williams showed up to support the Rev. Willie Wilson, his nominee for a seat on the University of the District of Columbia Board of Trustees. It really was a family thing, with his mother, Virginia, declaring, "Each time we find a fearless leader, detractors come forth to say, 'This is not the man we want.' "
When the choir began singing the gospel song, "He'll Work It Out," Williams got into the pulpit and began to boogie with the choir.
Although he looked a bit like Forrest Gump, as one observer put it, he was still able to keep the beat, and his appearance drew considerable applause.
"The Baptist tradition is not my personal tradition, but I'm getting the hang of it," Williams said at the breakfast. "I've been watching a lot of great preachers, like Beecher Hicks at Metropolitan Baptist and Wallace Smith at Shiloh. Reverend Smith starts out so calmly that I had to ask myself: How can he have this many people in his congregation? I can do that. But once he gets going, watch out."
When a newly elected Williams first started speaking from the pulpits of black churches, he'd never quote the Bible, figuring, he said, "that people would call me a phony."
But now he does it all the time, delighting congregations with his embellishments, such as claiming that Jonah, having been swallowed by the whale, "had to pull up the tray tables, because there would be no food served on this flight."
Smiling as he recalled the warm receptions he has received, Williams said, "I figure in a year and a half, I'll really be cooking."
But adjustments will have to be made. Williams admits that he cannot continue the Barryesque pace of glad-handing that marked his first term: personal appearances at more than 1,100 events.
"I made two New Year's resolutions," he said. "One is: Don't get mad, get even."
The second: Take off a couple of days each week.
For Christmas, some friends bought him a Yamaha keyboard. Williams, who plays by ear, says his favorite music includes "Smile" and "Take the A Train." When he has a bad day, he says, "I'll unwind with something by Bach, or just play the blues."
Meanwhile, his popularity remains high, and he's been showing up at more and more places wearing turtleneck pullovers instead of his trademark bow ties.
"Diane bought me some color-coordinated shirts and ties and a couple of turtlenecks, that kind of thing, to get me out of those stiff collars," he said, adding, "It's a futile effort to spruce up the look."
Not so. The mayor is actually starting to match and blend. Of course, he's got a ways to go.
From beneath the breakfast table, he stuck out a foot and revealed a finely cut Brooks Brothers pant leg over a thick-soled, plain-toed, military-style shoe.
"Boring, huh?" he said.
True. But he was headed in the right direction.