By sheer coincidence, this first week in August marks two major events in the nation's capital. Congress prepares to leave town for a month's recess and the trial of Mayor Marion Barry ends. Many here have the same sour reaction to each: It's about time, and good riddance.
Congress departs amid increasingly embittered partisan squabbling and scapegoating and with its most critical business unfinished. Once again, lawmakers move to the lazy rhythms of the old hit song, manana is good enough for me. It isn't, of course, for the rest of us, but by now Washington and the country have become accustomed to the politics of stalemate and inaction.
In the meantime, absence of congressional action means that the deficit continues to soar, the debt-ceiling level again rises, the banking system faces officially acknowledged dangerous stress, and the costs of the S&L debacle move ever upward with geometric progression. Every American will pay the collective price, and that price keeps going up.
It's a mess, and everyone knows it. They also know that it's going to get worse before it gets better.
Much of the same can be said about the Barry trial. For nearly eight months, since the mayor's arrest in the now-famous Vista hotel "sting" operation, Washington has been enveloped in an explosive racial atmosphere. His trial these past eight weeks has only made it worse.
Not since 1968, when riots flared in the wake of Martin Luther King's murder, have racial hostilities been so raw and naked here. The trial has exacerbated them.
There have been two trials, and two juries, in the Barry case. One has taken place in the decorum of the courtroom. With a notable exception, it has been relatively free of racial demagoguery. The exception was in the unsupported and inflammatory charge by Barry defense attorney R. Kenneth Mundy that a special team of FBI agents has been moving about America "targeting black elected officials."
Mundy offered not a shred of proof or documentation for this serious accusation and it was immediately and strongly denied by the government. But it reinforced the demagogic charges being leveled in the other Barry trial. This was the trial taking place outside the courtroom and aimed at the widest public audience.
Almost daily, Washingtonians have been subjected to a barrage of highly emotional charges by defenders of Barry, and by Barry himself. No sooner was the day's courtroom business ended than the parade before the TV cameras began. The cast of characters became as familiar as the charges they leveled. Central among them have been Minister Louis Farrakhan, Bishop George Stallings, and assorted other black ministers and political hacks who owe their positions to Barry.
Repeatedly, and explicitly, they have sounded the same theme: that Marion Barry is the victim of a white conspiracy intended to destroy black leaders. Barry has contributed strongly to these suspicions, as have others, including, sadly, Benjamin Hooks of the NAACP. After the government rested its case this week, for instance, Barry immediately went before the cameras to denounce what he called the "$50 million folly" of U.S. Attorney Jay Stephens, the person in charge of prosecuting his case. Barry thus once more attempted to shift the burden for his transgressions from himself to the prosecutors and left his supporters to ponder his totally unsupported charge that the government has expended $50 million to get him.
Tragically, many will believe him. Inevitably, the Barry trial will leave a legacy of intensified racial suspicions and resentments. Too many people here will remember the babble from outside the courtroom and ignore the testimony that was developed inside.
About that, there can be no question. Any fair-minded person can do nothing else than conclude that the government has proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Barry is guilty as charged of possessing and using drugs and then lying about it under oath. As Assistant U.S. Attorney Judith E. Retchin told the jury in her closing arguments, the government's case was about the deceit and deception of Marion Barry and "that is exactly what the evidence has shown in this case."
Whether the jury will reach that same decision will be known in the next few days. Then it will be mercifully over and Washington can enjoy a much-needed breather before picking up the pieces.