After a decent start he blew it. White racists are gleeful, but they didn't cause his troubles.
Whatdo Genghis Khan, Richard Nixon, J. Edgar Hoover and D.C. Mayor Marion Barry have in common? We don't have all day, so I will tell you: they all were/are historic figures who did some good along with their much more famous bad and thus are a pain in the neck to analyze.
You won't believe it about dear old Genghis, but he did have an early, notable run as a relatively enlightened organizer of a complicated governing order before he broke the record for mass butchery. J. Edgar Hoover was -- yes -- a man who importantly resisted some of the worst tendencies and ideas in national policing in his younger days at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, before he sank into the squalid, scheming efforts at political repression that characterized his later years. Nixon's better efforts in the conduct of foreign policy -- in particular his openings to both China and the Arab world -- are as familiar as the nefarious activities that finally drove him from office. And so, too, this week's collapsed politician, Marion Barry, began his mayoralty by doing some good for the city and ends it now in well-deserved personal disgrace.
It is, of course, Barry who concerns me at this point. The flurry of contradictory commentary in the last few days on his reluctant and belated announcement that he would not seek a fourth term illustrates how much trouble we continue to have in thinking straight about these one-part this, two-parts that public figures.
In truth, I do not know why this should be. Theoretically, anyway, it does not seem an insurmountable intellectual challenge to acknowledge the accomplishments while facing up to the terrible turn that was taken somewhere along the road. Instead, people pick up on only one side of the record, believing acknowledgment of the other destroys their argument. Thus, the bad guy was never, ever for a moment any good -- or, conversely, the guy who once did some good has earned the right not to be criticized for his subsequent misconduct, no matter how sordid it may be.
This last is especially interesting, even morally novel. It suggests that after you have amassed enough Brownie points for, say, a government reorganization or an infusion of new life into a housing program or the redressing of old wrongs against a mistreated constituency, you have earned a free pass to commit any crimes or improprieties you wish with impunity. Naturally nobody puts it quite like that, but the assumption is strongly present in much of the defense currently being made of Marion Barry.
That is one part of the problem: people will not admit that a man who once did some good has come to this particular pass or, alternatively, that a man who has come to this particular pass could ever have done any good. Next, there is the web of racial prejudices and animosities and exploitations in which the whole affair has been so miserably caught up. My perception of it is this: there has been, not just in Washington but also around the country and even in some places abroad, a pronounced element of antiblack racist glee at the horrible predicament into which Barry has dragged our city. This has in turn been seized upon by Barry, universalized by him as if it were common to all whites and the actual source of his problems and manipulated with great cynicism. I am reminded of one of those railroad "handcars," as they are called; one person at one end pulls down, the other pushes up, then the other way around and so forth, and the funny-looking little contraption just whizzes on down the tracks -- only in the case of this city it is whizzing toward a truly terrible racial destination unless it can be stopped.
The first part of the race taunting, the use of the corruption uncovered in a black-led government to "prove" a generalized racial disability, has been in evidence for a long while. Yes, we have had our troubles and our gross inefficiencies here. But we have had top Barry lieutenants doing prison time for absconding with sums of money that some of the crooks in and around Ed Koch's administration wouldn't even have stooped over to pick up in the street, judging by the vast sums they were eventually accused of running off with. And nobody, as I recall, said anything about the people of New York City having demonstrated that they couldn't govern themselves, or about white boys being unready for home rule. Members of Congress from places that work no better and often work worse than the District of Columbia cannot wait to roll their eyes toward heaven, shake their heads knowingly and suggest you-know-what about the reasons for our governing troubles here. The pre-home-rule corruption of the white police officers, congressional overseers and federally appointed officials who once ran the place is conveniently forgotten.
Barry serves as the pretext, the justification, in a way an "enabler" or facilitator of all this. Our mayor has been indicted on 14 criminal counts including three felony charges of lying under oath to a federal grand jury and misdemeanors for possession of cocaine. Before this, in a city struggling against the ravages of drug-related crime, he went from being a relatively purposeful mayor to a man contemptuously hobnobbing with drug dealers and users, an abuser of government patronage and power, in short an arrogant man who forgot what he was about and where his obligations lay. It was a stunning betrayal of his own constituency, and when it caught up with him he went for the racism defense: it was all part of a white refusal to tolerate black political power.
So Barry then used the wash of genuine racism as a pretext for his own situation, as a dodge, an out, an excuse. What is left out of his appraisal, even as it is left out of the considerations of those who see his downfall as evidence of black inability to lead, is the number of blacks in his government and outside it in this city who are first-class public servants and who have not been victimized by some supposed white conspiracy and who, incidentally, do not get into the kind of trouble Barry does.
Barry had a chance to be like that. After a decent start he blew it. It's his fault, not that of some collectivity of black people or of white people, for that matter. Congress and others tempted to take it out on this city should keep that in mind. We've already got enough trouble.
Reprinted by permission; all rights reserved.