This is to put into context the remarks attributed to Mayor Marion Barry as well as to establish the tone of the discussion reported by Milton Coleman in the Feb. 22 edition of The Washington Post.
First of all, anyone who knows Mayor Barry -- and the alert and knowledgeable Milton Coleman certainly does -- could never for one minute honestly portray him as one who could take such a cavalier approach to a problem faced by one other human being (let alone 740,000!), as that implied by Coleman's highly selective and negative reporting of an in-depth conversation about the snow-removal job attendant to the Great Snow of '79.
Second, knowing when, how and where the conversation took place will help. In the course of pursuing a policy of an open administration with free and easy access to the media, the mayor reluctantly but graciously assented to his press secretary's request that, because of the inclement weather, The Post reporter be allowed to ride in the mayor's five-passenger sedan along with two other aides to a local TV station so he could cover the mayor's scheduled report-to-the-people interview on a news show.
During the course of the ride through the freshly plowed streets to and from the show, the reporter very appropriately engaged the mayor in conversation about the city's attempts to dig out from under.
Mayor Barry was justifiably proud of the fact that by that third day of the worst snow storm in 50 years, our transportation and environment service workers, under the able direction of Doug Schneider and Herb Tucker, respectively, had been working round-the-clock with all available but necessarily insufficient and inadequate tools and supplies needed to cope with such a completely unpredictable and almost unprecedented weather event. Through their Herculean efforts, city workers had done what the mayor described as a "fantastic job" in having either plowed or put down chemicals on more than 70 percent of the streets citywide. Mayor Barry also advised the reproter that it would not be at all cost-effective to buy and have on hand enough equipment superbly to handle a once-in-a-lifetime snow.
The mayor related this to the reporter and pointed up and down the side streets that we were passing, most of which had indeed been cleared, as the reporter grudingly acknowledged.
At this point, attempting to persuade the mayor to adopt his own obviously negative view of the job done by the city's workers, Coleman said, "Yes, but this is Ward 3," as though it were to be expected that our mayor would have ordered special treatment for that ward.
The mayor patiently replied that Coleman should then check his own Ward 7 neighborhood, which had certainly received the same degree of attention. Alas, the reporter countered, "Yes, but I live down the street from so-and-so [a government official]," as though that took care of that.
At this time, an earnest mayoral aide spoke up and said that her street, a rather obscure, usually un-snowplowed one, had been plowed, too. The reporter dismissed her testimony by surmising that she lived in Ward 4. And that was supposed to take care of that.
Then the mayor said, "Listen, Milton, more residential side streets have been plowed this time than over before after a snow storm in this city. I personally and explictly ordered that to be done, and it was."
Whereupon the reporter retorted, "But look at the snow on the curbs. Why don't you have people out shoveling the snow off the curbs?" Never mind that the 680 men assigned round-the-clock duty for snow removal were even at that very moment still trying to remove the last of the Great Snow from our city's streets.
"Well, what about those people who still can't get to work [In spite of the city's fantastic snow-removal job]," Coleman prodded. The mayor suggested the bus, since by that time, 2:30 p.m. on the third day, the buses had started service again.
"But what if the buses are not running?" Coleman goaded, knowing that they were.
"Well, Miltion, they can walk," snapped the mayor in order to shut the reporter up .
It did. He now had his story. Not of the monumental snow-removal effort. Not of the mayor's finely tuned direction to his department heads. Not of the mayor's well-deserved but ill-starred weekend work-break trip out of town. Not of how the mayor during this perios maintained constant telephone communications with the mayor's Emergency Preparedness Center (composed of representatives of police, fire, park, transportation, environmental services departments, the Red Cross and a federal liaison) as well as the city's personnel director, the mayor's general assistant and communications director. But rather the reporter settled for an "I gotcha!" story.
Now, indisputably, Mayor Barry cares about the welfare of the District and its citizens, as he has demonstrated throughout his years in the city, first as a civil-rights and community activist and later as a hard-working, tough, sensitive, dedicated elected official. He hasn't suddenly changed in the snow.
Mayor Barry loves this city and its people -- including Milton Coleman. However, the mayor will probably never give him another lift, certainly not at the instigation of the press secretary.