At times during the 1980s, Marion Barry writes in his new memoir, he would stand amid one of the many parties he’d frequent as mayor, sip on a Hennessy and Coke, and take it all in.
“I would think, Damn! I did all of this [stuff]? How did I do it?” Barry writes about his days as both unapologetic “night owl” and power broker. “But I didn’t have time to be too proud or introspective. I had to keep doing what I was doing, and what had gotten me there.”
With the Tuesday release of the 336-page autobiography “Mayor for Life: The Incredible Story of Marion Barry, Jr.,” the time for pride and introspection has come for the former four-term mayor, current Ward 8 D.C. Council member and defining figure of modern-day District politics.
Written with Charlotte-based novelist Omar Tyree, “Mayor for Life” is heavier on the former than the latter, seeking to recast Barry’s legacy as a civil rights icon and crusader for black empowerment while denying, eliding or explaining away the controversies that pocked his four decades in politics.
In the most prominent instance, Barry portrays his January 1990 drug bust at a downtown Washington hotel not merely as a sideshow to his decades in public service, but one directly rooted in his efforts to upend white political and economic privilege.
“I don’t want my life and legacy to be all about what happened to me at the Vista Hotel,” Barry writes.
Yet the book goes into considerable detail about the infamous bust, which made international headlines and colors public perceptions of Barry and D.C. politics to this day. It includes the fullest public telling to date from Barry’s perspective, including his tumultuous relationship with Rasheeda Moore, the former model who played the central role in the operation and later testified against Barry in court.
Barry, now 78, writes of the “mix of power, attraction, alcohol, sex, and drugs” that fueled him during his 1980s heyday, admitting to “human frailties” and “bad personal decisions” but hesitating to say he was ever out of control.
Describing his first use of cocaine, he writes: “From that point on, you chase that same high and sex that you felt the first time. But I never considered myself addicted to anything or having problems with substance abuse.”
The book’s release is set to kick off a new round of news media attention for Barry, including a New York publicity launch, a Thursday event at the National Press Club and a coming interview with Oprah Winfrey.
In one high-profile revelation, Barry said his ability to win reelection to the mayoralty in 1994 caught the attention of President Bill Clinton, who “wanted to talk to me about how to handle embarrassing personal situations as a public official” shortly after the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke.
“I said, ‘The first thing you gotta do is stop digging the hole that put you there in the first place,’ ” Barry writes, describing an undated encounter after a political event at an unnamed local hospital.
His telling of his tawdrier moments comes after Barry gives a brisk account of his youth, from his earliest years in a tin roof shack in the Mississippi Delta to a young man in postwar Memphis who learned from the local white political boss that he “would rather have been a man who could have some influence than not.”
After moving from militant activist to school board president to D.C. Council member to mayor, Barry depicts himself as the prime mover in a transformation of the city — creating a wildly successfully summer jobs program for youths, kindling downtown development and making sure that minority business owners got a fair share.
Throughout, Barry describes himself as beset by white critics, whether the Ward 3 residents interested only in “taxes, trash and trees,” the white businessmen who resented his efforts to build up minority enterprises or the white federal prosecutors — Joseph diGenova and Jay Stephens — who investigated him and his administration through the 1980s.
“The war to reclaim Washington for white people had been declared,” Barry writes, setting up his turbulent third term in office.
The decisive battle in that war — his drug arrest with Moore and the subsequent trial — involved “the highest form of entrapment,” Barry writes. “They couldn’t find anything corrupt on me, because I had never taken a dime. So they become desperate to attack me for my personal life instead.”
He describes how a “strictly business relationship” grew to involve sex and drugs.
Barry writes that he was “conflicted” about the drug use — “I still had a city to run and a family to look after” — but maintained an on-again, off-again relationship with Moore until he finally cut her off after she smoked crack in his presence at a June 1989 party in the Grand Hyatt hotel downtown.
Barry describes having to “smack Rasheeda upside the head . . . to get her off of me,” confirming earlier accounts — including in “Dream City,” the 1994 book about his rise and fall that Barry decries in his memoir — that he had struck Moore.
Seven months later, in Barry’s telling, Moore called him again, about a “life-and-death situation,” and asked him to meet her at the Vista Hotel. Barry describes arriving at the hotel, now known as the Westin City Center, and phoning from the lobby: “I had my security detail with me, and I was not planning on going up to her room.”
But Barry did go up, after, he writes, Moore told him that she had ordered some soup from room service. In Room 727, he writes, “everything was set up just right to get me to drop my guard” — including cognac, ice and, most of all, Moore herself.
The crack was only a “means to an end,” he writes. “I had no interest in the drugs, but I figured Rasheeda would have some good sex with me if I agreed to do it with her.”
Barry’s account of the bust is peppered with claims that are questionable or demonstrably untrue. While Barry suggests he never smoked crack cocaine previously, Moore said in court that Barry had smoked crack on numerous prior occasions and had given her money to buy it. And the night of the bust, Barry told Moore, “I don’t smoke no more, honey,” according to law enforcement recordings.
Barry also accuses the FBI of tipping off the news media to the bust before it took place and orchestrating the release of the sting videotape: “How else could you explain how so many media people had gotten a hold of it so fast? It was all over the news before I had even arrived home that night.”
But the tape was only publicly released months later, after it was introduced into evidence during his trial. And the first reporter on the scene, Tom Sherwood, then and now of WRC (Channel 4), said Sunday that it was “absolutely untrue” that he had foreknowledge of the bust or Moore’s whereabouts.
Less subject to question is Barry’s account of his first use of cocaine, with an unnamed woman earlier in the decade. He said he decided to partake after the woman came on to him in sexually explicit terms. “I was curious,” Barry writes. “If cocaine made this woman feel this hot, I wondered how it would make me feel.”
He describes fumbling with the drug, blowing his first hit off of a business card before snorting it properly: It “felt like I had ejaculated. The cocaine was a powerful stimulant that went straight to my penis. I could see what this young woman was talking about.
“What happened next?” Barry writes. “I had sex with her.”
Cocaine use, Barry writes, was “part of the times in the ’80s,” but he insists he was “more of a social drinker,” given to having a cognac or three while making the late-night social rounds. And after leaving rehab following his arrest, Barry never again mentions using illegal drugs, though he tested positive for cocaine as recently as 2005.
Throughout, rather than a “tell-all,” the book has more the flavor of a “tell-enough.” His first marriage, annulled, is mentioned in a single sentence. His tumultuous second marriage, to fellow activist Mary Treadwell, is treated only briefly: “You can’t have two people of equal power in a relationship, you simply can’t,” he writes of their separation.
Various controversies from his mayoral years are denied or given brief shrift, such as allegations that he used drugs at a nightclub as early as 1981. Other detailed allegations of drug use are not addressed. He calls a widely aired allegation that he received oral sex in a Virginia prison waiting room “crazy” and “pure character assassination.”
There is no mention of his twin censures from his D.C. Council colleagues in recent years, and his repeated failure to pay his income taxes after leaving the mayoralty is explained matter of factly: “I didn’t refuse to file my taxes by intent or maliciously; I just didn’t do them.”
A short chapter, nine pages, is devoted to the drug violence that swallowed the city in the late 1980s — a crisis, Barry writes, that “took precedence over everything.” But he says there was little that he could do to stem the tide, and he does not connect the violence to his own drug use: “[I]f the feds couldn’t stop the drugs from coming in, how could we?”
Barry admits to few regrets, often picayune — giving in to a group of Southwest residents who wanted a popular street party canceled or not developing a better relationship with a key congressman during his fourth term.
More profoundly, he writes frequently about his relationship with his third wife, Effi, who died in 2007, and his son, Christopher, now 34, to whom Barry dedicates the book: “My life in politics took a heavy toll on me personally, and it took a toll on my family. . . . And if I had any regrets, I would probably think about the pain that my life decisions caused every one of them.”
Those regrets are couched in the conditional tense, but this one is not: “I should have stayed in the lobby and let [Moore] eat her bowl of soup and come down when she was ready,” Barry writes, “and none of this story would have happened.”