It was the first question from Renee Poussaint. The WJLA-TV news anchor, interviewing D.C. Mayor Marion Barry at his request yesterday, wanted his reaction to the allegation of sexual misconduct that a Virgin Islands woman had leveled against him that afternoon in federal court.
"Let's just get straight to it, Mr. Mayor," Poussaint said in opening the interview, which was televised live during Channel 7's 5:30 p.m. broadcast. "How do you respond to the kinds of charges you just heard?"
Barry declined to answer directly. "Well, first of all, Renee, I want to thank God, for this is my 156th day of being sober," the mayor said. And so began a meandering response that veered from Barry's musings on addiction treatment to a short course on constitutional law and finally to an assertion that the mayor was "not worried about all this testimony."
Although Poussaint's exclusive interview was brief -- about 10 minutes or so -- it did afford Barry enough time to reiterate his oft-repeated message about how he was faring in his battle against addiction. He said several times that he was maintaining a course of strict sobriety, and that no matter how damaging the testimony in his trial on drug and perjury charges, his legal difficulties would take care of themselves.
Barry also startled organizers of Nelson Mandela's visit to the District with his announcement that he would welcome the South African leader tonight at a rally at the Washington Convention Center.
Christine Dolan, spokeswoman for the Mandela National Welcome Committee, said she was shocked by Barry's disclosure because he had informed the group more than two weeks ago that he would be unable to meet with Mandela because of the trial.
"It contradicts the letter," Dolan said. She indicated, however, that Barry could take part in tonight's ceremonies if he wants to.
"Things have changed -- you've got to roll with the punches," she said.
Barry's wife, Effi, represented the city as part of an official greeting party that met Mandela upon his arrival in Washington Sunday afternoon.
The mayor, aiming at one of his favorite targets, lambasted the news media for being "disrepectful, crude, discourteous and just classless," and predicted the media "will try to mix up my situation" with Mandela's visit.
The mayor repeatedly ducked Poussaint's questions, including a pointed one about former friends' testimony that he was "an adulterer and a drug user for years."
"Again, the government has to prove that that is the case," Barry said. "Again, I want to dwell on how I feel about Marion Barry, these 156 days of being clean and sober . . . . "
Barry's face was drenched in perspiration throughout the interview -- he said he had rushed over from court -- and he seemed determined not to deviate from his message about his personal struggle with addiction.
"He had something he wanted to say and he continued to say it," Poussaint said afterward. "That's part of the drill."
At one point, the mayor paused and reflected about the court proceeding, where there has been potentially damaging testimony about his alleged drug use, as well other charges.
Barry said God "blessed me to even feel some empathy for some of the victims in this whole situation. A lot of people are victims.
"Some of the government witnesses are victims in the sense they were pressured, they were pushed into some of this," Barry said.