Marion Barry, dressed smartly in a blue pinstriped business suit, glanced nervously at his watch as he sat in his spacious fifth-floor office at the District Building recently, ruminating about the bleak early days of his administration. The mayor was late for a funeral and was busy preparing for a three-week trip to Africa.

The son of Mississippi sharecroppers, Barry made the leap from street activist battling the practices of the D.C. police department and co-founder of a self-help group called Youth Pride Inc. to city politician. Barry served on the D.C. Board of Education, an important breeding ground for city leaders, and was a member of the first elected council.

In 1978, he defeated Washington and Tucker in a close three-way race for the Democratic nomination for mayor, in part by characterizing his rivals as part of the old school. Barry then coasted to victory in the general election.

Washington and Barry represented a clash of generations and styles. Yet each, in his own time, was right for the job. Washington, who spent a quarter of a century heading the District's public housing program, gained prominence because of his calming influence during the city's most turburlent times and his non-threatening, accommodating ways with presidents and congressional leaders.

When Barry first took office in January 1979, the city's accumulated deficit, long papered over, already had risen to $284 million, and quirks in the tax-collection system continually caused cash shortages that sent city officials scrambling to the U.S. Treasury for short-term loans.

Congress had shifted to the city responsibility for making pension payments to firefighters, police officers, teachers and judges, but neglected to provide enough money to cover the cost of accrued benefits.

Moreover, Barry was pressured by a financial oversight commission of Congress to quickly put in place a highly sophisticated, computerized financial management system that baffled many of the city employes who were supposed to use it.

Six years later, Barry has quieted many of his critics. Though his budget miscalculations caused the unncessary layoffs of 688 D.C. employes in 1980 and 1981, the city's finances today receive better-than-average ratings from Standard & Poor's and Moody's Investors Service.

Barry receives high marks in other areas of city administration as well, although it took him years to straighten out the mess in the water billing office, to put an end to embarrassing snafus in the election process and to make incremental improvements in the city's still-troubled public housing program.

Barry, a consummate politician and hard-charging chief executive, became obsessed with the detail and nitty-gritty of city government, with an annual budget of more than $2 billion and a 37,000-man workforce. Occasionally, he bit off more than he could chew, as he did the first two chaotic years of his summer youth employment program. The mayor's prized Bates Street housing redevelopment project was a financial fiasco and a federal grand jury is investigating whether federal funds were misused.

The mayor gradually came to dominate the City Council on many issues -- in part because the charter is stacked in his favor, but also because he had developed long-standing ties and alliances with many of the members. Still, the council has prevailed on a number of crucial budget and tax issues and recently overrode Barry's veto of an important bill dealing with the funding of the office of the People's Counsel.

Washington, a short, grandfatherly man who dresses like a corporate chairman and frequently talks in parables, rose to prominence as head of the city's public housing authority to become the District's first mayor-commissioner, handpicked by president Lyndon B. Johnson, who expressed doubt that Washington would last six months. Washington not only held on but went on to become the city's first elected mayor.

"His style was a personal style -- hail fellow well met, easy-going, buddy-buddy," recalled one long-time observer. "Many of the City Council members were activists with political aspiration, and they very quickly took advantage of his administration's inability to adjust to the elected process and all that meant. . . In a way, Walter Washington made Marion Barry."

Washington helped allay many of the fears on Capitol Hill about granting home rule to a city with a 70 percent black population and dominated by civil rights activists. He held the city together during some of its worst crises, including the 1968 riots and frequent anti-Vietnam War protests. And he helped to reform and discipline the city's police force, appointed numerous blacks as top-level city officials and launched an ambitious public works program under which much of the city's low-income public housing was built.

Despite his many shortcomings as a big-city administrator, Washington helped to lay the foundation here for modern municipal government.

Looking back, Washington said recently that perhaps he did leave office at the right time in the District's history.

"You look at it like college presidents," Washington said in comparing his style with that of Barry's. "Some are good foundation men and some are good builders . . . You have to look at it in retrospect. When you're going through it, it's quite different. When I was going through it, I felt rightfully that everything I was doing was to build a foundation for the future of this city.