It was down in Mississippi, at one of those civil rights reunions, that we fell to discussing Marion Barry. Around me were veterans of the movement, men and women of astounding courage and enormous accomplishment, and what they wanted from me, the visiting columnist from The Washington Post who was current with the current Marion Barry, was an explanation of what had happened. “He was the best of us,” someone said, and he had become a joke. It was sad.
I felt the same way. I knew Barry and I liked Barry, and at times I was dazzled by him. He was smart, very smart, but he also could be stupid, very stupid. For me, he was a gift. I was writing a local column in The Post, trying to make something out of a pallid collection of county executives and school superintendents and all of a sudden, in 1978, came the luridly newsworthy Barry. He reorganized the city government and purged the bureaucracy (sometimes along racial lines) and, oh yes, smoked dope and did cocaine and boozed it up and chased women –and it seemed everyone knew it. My phone smoldered with hot tips.
In July 1985, I called him “Mayor for Life” (though others have claimed it). The appellation stuck. I had in mind Haiti’s François “Papa Doc” Duvalier because of Barry’s increasing grandiosity and his flamboyance. The man was fun to cover. Once, he called to inform me that I was behind on my real estate tax (guilty and a bit intimidated) and another time, during an interview in his office, he asked me if I was up to date with the city.
He was sitting behind his grand desk and, smilingly, tapped my name into his computer and scanned my tax history: Clean. I beamed –and added, though, that the city was not up to date with me. My auto registration form and check had disappeared in the swamp of the bureaucracy. Barry made a note and the next day some appropriately frightened city appointee called and asked me to come to a certain room of the municipal building where he presented me with brand new license plates. Barry called later that day to see if I was happy.
Barry reigned in stark contrast to his predecessor, the stodgy and plodding Walter Washington, who originally had been appointed mayor. In no time, though, flamboyance turned into irrepressible irresponsibility. It seemed everyone in town knew what the mayor was doing at night – and who he was doing it with. It all made for wonderful copy – column after column about his escapades but nothing about the man he had been before he became the man I knew. Then, at that reunion, a different Marion Barry surfaced – not in person, but in anecdote, in retelling, in a sad resignation that accompanied the mention of his name. The people who had known him when he was in college, who had been in the civil rights movement with him and had been awed by his abilities and his promise, grieved for the man he once had been. It goes without saying that Marion Barry cheated on his spouses and his constituents. His greatest betrayal, however, was of himself.