A clever, manipulative politician asked the government to go easy on him and the public to give him another chance.
A day after his conviction on a drug-possession charge -- a conviction he clearly sees as a victory -- D.C. Mayor Marion Barry was asking everybody to forgive and forget. "Any of you who still harbor resentment, let go," he urged. "We must come together and heal ourselves and our city."
It was a pretty good performance, although it failed to satisfy reporters who wanted him to talk about his political plans. He acknowledged his addiction (though not specifically to cocaine), apologized for "any hurt I may have caused" and even called on the federal government that had prosecuted him to "join in this healing."
And still it was hard for any except diehard Barry loyalists to take him seriously. The rest of us saw -- or thought we did -- a clever and manipulative politician laying the basis for the judge to go easy on him at sentencing time, for the government to drop the unresolved charges against him and for the people to give him another crack at public office.
He had been found guilty of one of 11 misdemeanor drug possession charges and acquitted of another. After eight days of deliberation, the jury was unable to reach a verdict on nine other possession counts and three counts of perjury -- felony offenses that could have meant almost automatic imprisonment. There was no verdict on the charges growing out of the January "sting" at the Vista Hotel, despite FBI videotapes -- clearly showing him smoking crack cocaine -- apparently because the jury couldn't satisfy itself that the government had behaved properly in using a former girlfriend to set up the bust. He seemed to accept the jury's verdict on the one count of possession and to acknowledge his addiction.
"There is no shame and disgrace in being addicted to anything," he told a Saturday gathering that looked more like a victory celebration than the press conference it was supposed to be. "The shame and disgrace is in refusing to seek help. I could have believed I could handle my problem by myself, but the quiet voice of God whispered to me, 'Take My hand.' " He evoked religion, his personal pain and the teachings of his mother, who was in attendance. And he called on the federal government to join him in healing the divisions exposed by his trial.
"The government has examined my conduct; now it must examine its conduct."
Fair enough, but I would offer an additional suggestion: Let Marion Barry examine his own conduct. And let him do so from the particular point of view of those who identify with him.
If he is serious about help and healing, let him stop using the poor residents of Washington the way a drug addict uses members of his family: to explain and embrace his unexplainable and repugnant behavior and to offer excuses for it. Let him explain to them that it isn't enough to identify the villains who have made their lives miserable, but that they must also taked control of their lives; that a compassionate government must offer them help, not just someone to blame for their helplessness.
Let him apologize to black Washington for making his personal problems their problems. Let him say clearly that the difficulties he has lately faced, and still faces, have far less to do with the frequently outrageous conduct of the prosecutor's office than with his own arrogant and insupportable behavior. Let him apologize to residents of the city for the national and international shame he has caused them and for the practical consequences of that shame -- including the reduced likelihood of adequate federal support and a larger grant of self government.
And above all, let him speak with candor to the children. It pains me to hear black youngsters say with such obvious conviction that Barry was prosecuted only because he was black. It doesn't matter that the same Washington Post front page that carried the news of his conviction also carried the story of the indictment, on drug and perjury charges, of Henry G. Barr, the white man who was once a top aide to the U.S. attorney general. Children believe, because Barry has encouraged them to believe, that the prosecution of any black official is, per se, racial persecution.
But worse than misleading the youngsters who admire him is his failure to lead them. I don't believe there is one youngster in the District of Columbia who has been induced into using drugs because the mayor used drugs. But I also doubt that there is one youngster in the city who has refrained from using drugs because of anything the mayor has said or done.
If he is serious about healing, let him gather up the mistrust, the shame and the racial and political division that have showered the city like feathers from a broken pillow and say: "These are mine. I claim responsibility for them. Forgive me for making them yours."
It would be a major step toward healing the city, the nation and his own broken life.