“I want my royalties,” Ken Cummins jokingly told me. As the Loose Lips columnist for the Washington City Paper, he slapped the moniker “Mayor for Life” on Marion Barry.
This week Barry released the autobiography he wrote with novelist Omar Tyree, which wears that same title. So, where is Cummins’s cut? He didn’t even get a free copy of the book.
“I didn’t intend for it to be positive,” continued Cummins. “I was working the Chicago Tribune Bureau; I may have been the only Loose Lips who had a day job. I was writing about Baby Doc in Haiti, looking at all the killing and stuff and it just came to me.”
“It was meant to be satirical — not flattering,” added Cummins.
“It was a spoof, basically saying that we would never get rid of this guy,” remembered a Wilson Building source who requested anonymity, noting that he “still has to work” with Barry. “In another world or another culture, he’d be dictator.”
Back then, in the late 1980s, when Cummins slapped the label on the third-term mayor, Barry flaunted his powers. He passed out contracts to friends, asserting that he was extending opportunities for minority business owners. Lesser known residents, many of whom depended on government services, were placated with crumbs — summer jobs, for example — and suffered far too many incompetent managers. Sometimes citizens pleading for improvements were simply ignored.
Barry skillfully cast himself as black warrior-politician in a battle against the mainstream, duking it out with whites — never mind that many of the whites in the city financed his political career. He may not have originated “The Plan” conspiracy that insisted whites wanted to take over the District from black officials who had gained a foothold after passage by Congress of the Home Rule Act. But Barry exploited that fear-infused theory to his own advantage, keeping himself gainfully employed for decades. Even now, when all else fails, he resorts to the white-man-is-against-black-people mantra.
Meanwhile, he spent many of his nights drinking, drugging and womanizing. He understood he controlled the city. He believed no one would challenge his authority. Someone did. He was caught in an FBI sting, smoking crack. The rest is history.
Over the years, as his direct political powers and, perhaps, even his relevancy have declined, it appears he has become more enamored of Cummins’ nickname.
“I call it the four-stages of Barry,” said Cummins, noting the first reaction from the then-mayor was to try to use charm. “He laughed about it. Then there was isolation; he tried to just ignore me. Every writer for every church bulletin was getting an interview.
“Then, [Barry] went to anger. Now every time I see him, he says, ‘I love it. I am Mayor for Life,’” continued Cummins. “That’s the embrace.”
And so, what was meant to be a slight, Barry has masterfully turned into a celebration of himself and his so-called contributions. Capturing what may be the “Mayor for Life’s” greatest skills — propaganda and myth-making — the Wilson Building source recalled this: “Marion always said the reason the lion is king of the jungle is because he gets to tell the story.”
Jonetta Rose Barras writes a weekly column for The Post. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.