My first job at The Washington Post was covering Marion Barry in his first term as mayor. Over the years, as he settled into a sad pattern of self-destruction, his name was reduced to a punch line for late-night comedians – but never for me. The man I knew was always an original, always the real deal, and the city he shaped should mourn his passing.
Those who weren’t here at the time can’t possibly appreciate the electricity – or the accomplishment – of Barry’s early years as mayor. When I arrived, in 1980, he had been in office for a year. The young, energetic professionals he assembled as his brain trust were reshaping the city government and the city itself.
Barry’s team set in motion the forces of redevelopment and gentrification, beginning the transformation of decrepit corridors that still bore the scars of the 1968 riots. The corner of 14th and U streets NW was a no-go zone, depopulated except for the junkies who materialized out of the shadows to meet their dealers at the hour police called “feeding time.”
All this began to change when Barry decided to build the Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center amid the ruins. His successors, too, took major steps to make Washington the rich, bustling city it is today – notably Anthony Williams and Adrian Fenty. But Barry started it all. History will record that he began the metamorphosis that made Shaw and other burned-out neighborhoods safe for high-end furniture and artisanal cheese.
Barry was open-minded and progressive – shockingly so, for some in Washington’s socially conservative African American neighborhoods. He brought gay people and Latinos from the margins into the mainstream. He prodded those living in the insular, affluent, mostly white neighborhoods west of Rock Creek Park to believe that they, too, had a stake in the city’s future.
Barry was chronically late to everything – mostly because he could not walk down the street without being constantly stopped by constituents, supplicants and well-wishers. He always listened. He never brushed anybody off.
He changed the lives of a generation of young people with his damn-the-expense summer jobs program. I’m amazed at how many successful young professionals who grew up in the city tell me they got their first job – effectively, their start on right path – from Marion Barry.
But Barry was an addict. He had other flaws, too, as we all do, but his main problem was addiction – to drugs, alcohol, sex, power, action, whatever he could use to satisfy an itch that never really went away.
I had moved on to other assignments long before his addiction became infamous and sent him to prison. In retrospect, there were signs – a couple of times when he drank inappropriately at public events, constant rumors of his womanizing. But my tendency was to see him as a rascal or a rogue, not as a human being who had fallen into a deep hole and couldn’t climb out.
Addiction is a disease, according to the National Institutes of Health. Some people hold the largely discredited view that it is solely a matter of personal weakness. Whether you believe Barry’s failings were pathological or moral or some combination of the two, you should know this: He was a gentle, generous man who didn’t intend to hurt anyone except perhaps himself.
Scores of developers, consultants and others – some honest, some crooked – got rich doing business with Barry’s city government. Barry did not. He would go out of his way to find a job or a contract for someone who randomly stopped him in the street but never managed to do much for himself. He rarely had enough in his bank account to pay his taxes or his parking tickets.
In his later years, a group of old friends – many from Barry’s promise-filled early years as mayor – kept tabs on him, helping him with the task he found most difficult of all: navigating life. Addicts tend to betray those who love them; Barry certainly did. But he had a way of inspiring friendship and loyalty among those whose lives he touched.
When I ran into him a couple of years ago at the Democratic National Convention, Barry joked to everyone within earshot that he had made my career – by giving me, as a rookie reporter, plenty of front-page news. I told the mayor he was right – he was never anything but “the mayor” to me.