Curiously, the dramatic climax of Marion Barry’s autobiography is exactly the kind of salacious moment that he has long dismissed as irrelevant and sensational, a notorious incident that steers attention far away from his life’s work:
It was sometime in the 1980s, and the mayor was at a party at a house he frequented on 11th Street NW. A woman who was doing coke offered him some, noting that the stuff made her “hot.” This was enough for Barry: “I told myself, what the hell? Why not?”
She put a line of cocaine on a business card, and the mayor of the capital of the free world raised it to his nose. “I exhaled instead of inhaled and blew all of the powder off the card,” he writes. The second try, he got it right. It “felt like I had ejaculated,” Barry writes. “The cocaine was a powerful stimulant that went straight to my penis.” He had sex with the unnamed woman. “From that point on, you chase that same high and sex that you felt the first time.”
Much of the mayor-for-life’s new autobiography is devoted to blasting the news media, the white political and business establishments, and white voters for the racism that Barry says led to his 1990 arrest on drug charges, the constant drumbeat of allegations of cronyism and corruption that plagued his four terms as mayor, and the pressures that fed his personal demons. So it’s odd that in constructing his life’s story, Barry focuses again and again on the stuff that made the wrong kind of headlines — the rising politician who had carried a gun as a D.C. street activist, the mayor who blamed his arrest for smoking crack on a federal government that was out to destroy him, the convicted drug user who staged a remarkable comeback and told his opponents to “get over it.”
For decades, Barry, now a D.C. Council member, has promised that he would eventually tell his tale his own way. Now that he has, it is oddly reliant on old newspaper stories to provide the narrative of his public life. Barry’s Barry is, like the man the papers portrayed, a fighter, a pragmatist, a lover of the game who is keenly aware of his dazzling charisma and his ability to deploy guilt and raw power to build a black middle class.
What distinguishes Barry’s version of himself from the accounts others have written is an unbridled belief in himself. The title — from a phrase that Barry says he always hated and was coined by former Washington City Paper reporter Ken Cummins — is the book’s last bit of self-deprecating humor.
From there on, the mayor-for-life is at the center of everything. Letting his co-author, a best-selling writer on his own, work on this book is “the opportunity of a lifetime.” The arrest at the Vista Hotel was embarrassing, but it “didn’t stop me from effectively running the city.” Barry manages to claim some credit for both Adrian M. Fenty’s mayoral win in 2006 and Vincent C. Gray’s defeat of Fenty in 2010. The scandals that plagued Gray’s tenure from the start “could have been avoided had Mayor Gray consulted with . . . me, especially on personnel decisions.”
When things go wrong, it’s generally someone else’s fault. It was Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly who drove up the city’s debt, he says, leading Congress to strip Barry of most of his powers and put a control board in charge of the District. It was “racism” that got him convicted in his drug trial. The Vista sting came about because “they didn’t want me creating all of these opportunities for black folks. So when the FBI set me up at the Vista, they were really trying to kill me. . . . The war to reclaim Washington for white people had been declared.”
Barry does admit to being overwhelmed by some of the city’s problems, especially around drugs and the District’s stratospheric murder rate in the 1980s and ’90s. “There was nothing I could do about it,” he says, but he hastens to add that “I continued to do an outstanding job against so many difficult odds.”
“Mayor for Life” is at its best when Barry tells the story of how he got here, of picking cotton in the fields of Mississippi when he was a little boy, of learning to speak in public by reciting poetry in high school, of organizing his fellow black teen newspaper delivery boys to go on strike because only the white carriers were getting bonuses for signing up new subscribers. (The Memphis Commercial Appeal folded to Barry’s pressure in three days. “If you want change, you have to make change happen,” he says.)
Barry never had trouble speaking back to the powerful. He’s not sure where that courage came from, but at least he writes about his parents in an effort to figure that out. In other important ways, though, he is less than fully forthright. Here’s his entire account of his first marriage: “I married Blanche Evans, but it was annulled.”
Barry explains the collapse of his second marriage, to Mary Treadwell, by saying that “you can’t have two people of equal power in a relationship, you simply can’t.” The woman for whom he displays the most emotion is wife No. 3, Effi Barry, who stood by him with extraordinary grace, until she could take it no more. But even here, the mayor can be bloodless: “Effi was a huge asset to me,” he writes. “Effi softened my image for a lot of people.”
The book is a mess. Barry tells the same stories over and over, repeats the same statistics endlessly (black businesses got 3 percent of D.C. contracts when he came into office and 47 percent when he left), reintroduces characters again and again. Passage after passage reads like a paraphrase of old State of the City speeches. At several points, he lists his mayoral appointments.
But that’s just sloppiness. What’s more disturbing is the how Barry reckons with the behavior that brought him down. At one point, he bashes the news media for harping on reports of his womanizing. “They were all unfounded,” he writes. One hundred pages later, he admits he “got involved with women who sometimes were not good for me. As a man, you get involved with women anyway because you still have human needs: emotional, physical, spiritual, intellectual.”
Barry is frank about his addiction to alcohol — there’s a painful moment when his son Christopher, then 9, snatches a bottle from his father and says, “You drink too much!” — but he is evasive and contradictory when it comes to his drug use.
He’s better at explaining his compulsion to run for and be in office. “I loved it when the people liked and could relate to me,” he says. “Who wouldn’t? Any politician who says anything different is lying.”
Barry comes off in the book as almost absurdly boastful, but that’s not really who he is. He’s far more about pride than about overblown ego. He is justifiably proud that his hiring and minority set-asides created a generation of black-owned businesses and a thriving black middle class; his true legacy is Prince George’s County, the first place black Washingtonians moved as they climbed the economic ladder. He knows — and it is true — that no other mayor has come close to his achievement in providing first jobs for poor young black residents. But he glides over the fact that black poverty remains deeply entrenched in the District, and his administration had little to show for its efforts to curb crime or improve schools.
Most disappointingly, though, Barry fails to explain how or why he forged such an enduring and powerful bond with the people he always called “the lost, the last and the least.” I’ve heard Barry talk about this quite movingly. He understands why whites and blacks are drawn to him — whites because of a blend of guilt and idealism about pushing past superficial racial differences, blacks because Barry reflects their struggles with both resentment and aspiration. But none of that is in the book.
Others have captured his appeal and talent in ways that his own book shortchanges him. The essential reading on Barry is a quartet of pieces — David Remnick’s “The Situationist,” in the New Yorker in 1994; Tom Sherwood and Harry Jaffe’s book, “Dream City;” Peter Perl’s psychological study of Barry in The Washington Post Magazine in 1996; and Bella Stumbo’s intimate portrait of Barry the night crawler in the Los Angeles Times in 1990 — that illuminate his self-destructive demons and the extraordinary promise that Barry held for those who loved him.
This book is squarely aimed at black readers. Barry makes no apology for that, addressing whites at the end of the book: “Well, let me tell you. I’m black, and my life has been about uplifting black folks.”
In the end, Barry agrees he’s always been a situationist, in it not for personal financial gain — people around Barry got rich, but he always lived on the edge — but to be at the center, in the fight. Marion Barry is a chameleon who will always do what’s right for Marion Barry, always with the idea that in doing so, he is doing what’s right for black Americans, people who, like him, recall the sting of the cotton that curled his mother’s hands, yet people who believe that by pushing forward and striking back, there is yet a way to stand tall.
Marc Fisher, a senior editor at The Washington Post, has been reporting on Marion Barry and the District since 1986.
Mayor for Life
The Incredible Story of Marion Barry, Jr.
By Marion Barry, Jr. and Omar Tyree
Strebor Books. 325 pp. $25