Cleaning out the garage over the weekend, I came upon a headline in an old newspaper that caught my attention. ''Barry Lashes Out Against Allegations of Using Drugs,'' it read.
This particular Washington Post happened to date only from last Sept. 16. But the running story of Mayor Marion Barry and his battle with drug allegations goes back a lot farther than that.
Last week, after finally admitting his past problems as a drug abuser, the mayor announced he would not seek a fourth term. He is, instead, standing trial for drug and perjury charges stemming from the FBI cocaine-smoking sting in a Washington hotel last January. And all across the country, judging from the press reaction, people are jumping to erroneous conclusions about the meaning of the Barry saga.
It's understandable that the story caught the public's fancy. When the local U.S. attorney let it be known that he had videotaped Barry doing drugs with a fashion-model girlfriend, the saga of the swinging mayor obviously intrigued people who normally have little interest in the local politics of the nation's capital.
Still, it was surprising to see the news of his noncandidacy positioned as the lead story in The New York Times and get such heavy play in newspapers and television broadcasts from coast to coast.
Barry's announcement that he would not run drew far more coverage than the success other black politicians had achieved in the immediately preceding days in winning precedent-setting, contested nominations for senator from North Carolina, governor of South Carolina and lieutenant governor of Arkansas.
I'm not suggesting racism in that reaction, but it does indicate a double standard. One person's failure seems so much more riveting than others' success. Even more disturbing was the clear belief on the part of many people I met on reporting trips around the country this past year that Marion Barry was so typical of Washington politicians that he might well be able to continue in politics if he chose.
I have lunch bets to collect all across the country from people who challenged my flat assertion, even before the FBI sting that led to his indictment, that Barry was finished. Some of those people are so cynical about Washington, the political capital, that they think literally anything goes. In other cases, they seemed to believe that the predominantly black constituency of Washington would not hold a black politician to the same standards that they themselves would expect of their elected officials.
They could not understand -- or believe -- that the people who were angriest with Barry were Washingtonians of both races who had witnessed the steady deterioration of local government services and standards as the mayor's personal behavior led him into deeper and deeper trouble.
The Barry story has elements of personal and political tragedy. Coming to Washington during the civil rights struggle, Barry showed himself a vivid personality and, quickly, a gifted politician -- the first authentic, up-from-the-streets leader Washington had produced. When Barry in 1978 defeated Walter Washington, an important transition figure in Washington's journey from federal colony to home rule, self-government really began.
For all the embarrassment his behavior has brought to the city, Washington today is a more vital and thriving community than it was before Barry became mayor. It is also a more corrupt city. Unrestrained by long-established governmental norms and largely uninhibited by the threat of political competition, Barry and his friends followed a path of municipal favoritism deeply etched in American history. Lincoln Steffens could have covered the District Building beat blindfolded these past dozen years. The practices that landed more than a dozen officials of the Barry administration, including two deputy mayors, in court and in jail were exactly those Steffens had described almost a century ago in Cleveland, Philadelphia and other cities.
It took the contractors and developers -- some of them opportunistic blacks and many of them long-established whites -- very little time to set up mutually beneficial dealings with the Barry inner circle. Forgotten in all the publicity about his more recent gaudy exploits is the fact that the first taint on Barry's record was the disclosure of a sweetheart mortgage deal a District savings and loan association had given him soon after he became mayor.
This story of money and power, of municipal corruption and personal weakness has little to do with race. Rather it is a familiar pattern.
The real surprise is that so many people seemed to have thought that in this wicked age and especially in this city, Barry could get away with it. Whether or not he is convicted, he has lost what he most craved: power. And the people of Washington -- who are better than the nation apparently thinks them to be -- have a chance to find leadership more worthy of their trust.