Was Marion Barry made to appear, as one critic of a Post profile on the D.C. mayor put it, "an irresolute fool"? Or, " a no- intellect, sexually active Black Bull scotch-drinker"? These were among the more vivid -- also more printable -- reactions registered by an extraordinary number of readers about the article on page one Sept. 9.
A sampling of others:
"A mean-minded, prejudiced story." "A defamation of character," "Unrelentingly harsh." "Portrays a reasonably effective leader like someone out of 'Amos and Andy.'" "I don't care what he wears or what he drinks unless what he drinks impairs his ability to do the job." "I want to hear about his philosophy, not about his scotch and TV programs." "Where were the editors on this one?"
Interestingly, the piece appeared the day before the newspaper gave its editorial endorsement to the mayor as "having earned the right to a second term in office. We say he has been a good mayor, that he has worked hard and made a substantial difference in the city . . ."
The profile, one of a series on mayoral candidates, was written by reporter Juan Williams. Publication of the others in the series brought neither complaint nor other comment to this desk. A few who objected to this piece acknowledged being partisan supporters of the mayor. Others made it plain they were not; among them, other Post staffers.
The series was designed to feature the candidates in a setting separate from the newspaper's coverage of individual campaigns during the run-up to election. The other Democrats--Charlene Drew Jarvis, Patricia Roberts Harris, John Ray -- were interviewed in their homes. Mayor Barry, as Mr. Williams pointed out, declined to do the same. He and Mrs. Barry, therefore, were interviewed in the mayor's office. All critics found a more positive "tone" -- fairly, I believe -- in the other accounts.
The The mayor's profile seems drawn uncharitably from his weakest side. Much space is given to his preferences in television, whiskey, clothes, sports. The impression from a series of obviously unflattering sidelights is of a man motivated by appearance but without commitment. One is given little appreciation for what the city's principal official stands for. Does he have a personal philosophy? What are his beliefs? There is no evidence the questions were raised in the interview. Even "growth in the job," which was the article's headline, was presented as nothing more than a self-claimed notion. It is hard to find an unqualified plus throught the text.
Rumors of marital rift are raised. Then, in a reference to the couples' 2-year-old son, the mayor is quoted, "We got preganant in Vermont on Labor Day weekend." How did he know? "I got that feeling. I knew I'd hit it."
None of this line of questioning appears elsewhere in the series, and one wonders what the anecdote was intended to convey. One editor said it seemed uniquely relevant to the mayor's story. Similar questions were asked about the description of Mrs. Barry's difficulty moving a chair at the interview, while her husband "looked on." Was that reported to symbolize a character flaw?
There is a fair amount of straight forward material on the mayor's origins. The story was not faulted for inaccuracies, with one exception: a district official stated that a "retort" attributed to the mayor -- "he is the black candidate" -- was never made.
Assistant Managing Editor David Maraniss says that he and city editor Milton Coleman vetted the piece "very carefully" before publication. Mr. Maraniss says also: "The intent of the Barry profile was to describe as honestly as possible the development of Marion Barry's public personal image and character in the four years he has been mayor. I think the story did just that. As for complaints that the story dealt more with image than substance, I refer you and the complaining readers to the five-part series we did on the accomplishments of the Barry administration."
This last misses the point, perhaps seeks to avoid it. It was not a bill of particulars on government accomplishment the critics were looking for. They felt cheated, as I did, being given a caricature rather than a full and fair measure of an important candidate for important office to examine only days before an election.