At the moment every television monitor in The Washington Post's vast newsroom was showing Mayor Marion Barry allegedly smoking crack, a tour group came through: young people, some of them black. One was a girl, tall and angular, hair done in a short, neat Afro. She looked at the knots of reporters and editors watching the television screen, saw what they were seeing and dropped her head. Here, in a single face, is the crime of Marion Barry.
It's no compliment to America that 127 years after Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves we still talk of black role models, but not, really, white ones. For Washington, a proud and graceful city about 75 percent black, this has been a time of triumph and tragedy. First Nelson Mandela, every inch the hero, came through, and this city of monuments tingled. Then, as if coming out of a dream, the Barry trial -- in progress all the time -- seemed to resume. The tape was the rudest of awakenings.
The tape said it all. Forget, if you can, the woman. Forget, if you like, the crack and the pipe and all that talk about drugs. Forget, even, the previous testimony -- the Olympian womanizing, the parties, the drugs, the complicity of the police, assignations in the home of a churchman, the various brushes with an overdose. Freeze the tape and see what Marion Barry did whenever Rasheeda Moore was out of the room. He preened before the mirror.
There, in grainy black and white, was a man in love with himself. Here was the mayor as emperor, a hotel room Napoleon, crowning himself over and over. The pose, the narcissism, is as characteristic of Barry as was Bonaparte with his hand in his tunic. Here is a man who some time ago starting referring to himself in the third person: "Marion Barry will not ... Marion Barry does not ... " He has even designated himself an agent of God, chosen so that, through him, others will be cured of their addiction. He has called God as a character witness.
A trial is underway, and until it's concluded Barry is legally not guilty. But being "not guilty" is not the same as being innocent, and that he is not. Here is a man who could have cut a deal, accepted a plea bargain and resigned his office. Instead has put his wife, his son, his city and his people through an ordeal, acting as if the only thing that mattered was his legal guilt or innocence.
Daily, Effi Barry sits beside her husband and listens to testimony of his infidelity. Except in detail, none of this is news to her. Her husband runs around, she long ago told the press -- as if Barry's behavior was strictly a private matter. She acts as if we should not be bothered if she is not. She may not feel cheated, but many others do and, anyway, she always had the option of leaving.
Not so Barry's son. This is the non-divorceable, non-annullable arrangement. A wife can be an ex-wife, a husband a former husband, but a father is always a father and nothing, but nothing, changes that fact. This is not only a biological truth. It is a truth in the school yard and in the classroom, at camp and on the street, and it remains true until one or the other, the parent or the child, is here no more -- and even then, the man will tell you, the memory of his father makes him a boy.
So somewhere in this city a 10-year-old son must be hearing the same news, and to the boy the headlines are not about a mayor but about daddy. Daddy did drugs. Daddy ran with women. Daddy nearly overdosed. The perfect father doesn't exist, and to be a parent is, at given times, to be fool and a failure. But Marion Barry, accused of perjury and drug use, is guilty of something else entirely: child abuse.
The man in the mirror has thought only of himself. He has chosen to abuse racial solidarity to save his own skin. The other day he accused the "majority press" of persecuting him by showing him no respect. The "majority press" in this town is white. He has told people he's a martyr, the target of a vendetta, the victim of a modern-day lynching. He exploited the black experience, which is persecution, and talked of the "theys" who were out to get him. He was applauded by other black elected officials, by many in the clergy and, to a degree, by the man in the street. But the expression on the face of that girl in the tour group showed what Marion Barry has done. He mocked them all.