Marion Barry didn’t die an unnatural political death, as other African American politicos of his generation had done. While he seemed to test fate constantly and deliberately, he was a near political genius and master salesman. He expertly intertwined the District’s home rule, African American empowerment and socio-economic struggles with his own pockmarked narrative. It was impossible to slay the peripatetic politician without seriously bruising those other important stories.
Equally true, it was difficult not to come under his spell, to fall victim to his charisma, enhanced by an encyclopedic memory of names, dates and events. As a young black cultural nationalist, I moved from San Francisco to the District wanting desperately to live in what was then Chocolate City. The Barry I found was legend. He was Anansi the spider, the mythic figure in African and diasporic folklore, out-maneuvering large forces inciting pride and a sense of invincibility in under-dogs.
I was so captured by him and his administration that I volunteered my skills to his 1982 reelection campaign. That insider’s view instigated my decades-long reassessment of black politics and African American politicians, causing me to adopt the Rev. Martin Luther King’s dream of a society where character — not color — becomes the prime evaluator.
In the more than 20 years I covered Barry, as a reporter and as an opinion columnist, and later as his biographer, I leaned in closer and closer, seeing the best and the worst. Often his version of Anansi resulted in too many African Americans being bamboozled. Perhaps that’s the nature of politics: Promises are made to people desperate to see their lives improved by a politician only half intent on fulfilling commitments.
I expected better from Barry. He was brilliant, a reluctant public intellectual who knew, even in his waning days, more about the machinations of municipal government and American politics than most of his colleagues. I admit to still being awed on many days by his ability to fillet a public policy faster than others, laying bare its advantages and disadvantages.
That contributed to my disappointment in the misdirection of his life and career. Sure there is much to praise: His determination not to stay on the floor after being knocked down, often during shadow-boxing. Every time the city thought it had seen the last of him, he came back. Truth be told, I will half expect to see him at the D.C. Council’s next meeting, irritating the chairman with his constant interruptions. But that career, the one that will be praised by nearly everyone over the coming days and weeks, was built on the backs of the city’s most vulnerable people; they were the ones who also suffered most.
I tracked Barry as mayor, as federal prisoner and as council member. During his first three terms as mayor, I saw the state of public housing go from critical to code blue. I saw the deterioration of social services, including programs for the mentally ill. In 1989, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a class-action lawsuit against the city demanding improvements to foster care. Public school parents filed a lawsuit against him. By the time Barry was busted in an FBI sting, nearly every segment of the city’s human services delivery system had been taken over by local or federal courts.
In Southern tradition, it is not proper to speak ill of the dead. But to white-wash a life is a disservice to the struggle it witnessed and overcame. It also doesn’t help the living glean critical lessons.
So, I have come to bury Barry, not to continue any political packaging. The unvarnished truth is this: He squandered his potential and the public’s trust. What’s more, for many years it was mostly about him: his determination to dominate all facets of the District’s political, civic and business life and to be heralded as the emperor, although in his final days, he was essentially clothesless and powerless.
A couple of years ago, we found ourselves side by side in the Bank of America on 13th Street. Courteously, we greeted each other. “Jonetta, why don’t we bury the hatchet,” he said, suggesting I call his office and arrange lunch. I played along and telephoned his office, knowing there would be no breaking of bread. That was his way of getting the upper hand in a relationship.
Barry was like that, an unrepentant manipulator. When he persuaded those in Ward 8 to elect him to the council, it was more of the same. Consider for example, in 2008 when he was running for reelection, he introduced legislation that supposedly would create 50,000 new jobs, exciting his constituents, many of whom were unemployed. That bill never passed from his committee. In fact, except for improvements advanced by former mayors Anthony A. Williams and Adrian M. Fenty, Ward 8 has continued to face enormous challenges.
If he was an addict, as he admitted, he was also addictive. Like crack users chasing that first high, many people hoped getting Barry elected, regardless of the office, would enhance their status, though there was countless proof to the contrary. My hope is that from his ashes, Ward 8 can finally rise.