In the literary drama of ancient Greece, a hero could be blessed with great strengths but also cursed with debilitating personal flaws. And yet he could emerge triumphant. The most famous of these kinds of heroes sometimes get statues in commemoration of their valiant struggles.
The great mythical warrior Achilles, with his infamously vulnerable heel, has one in London’s Hyde Park. Now, former D.C. mayor Marion Barry, a revered political fighter also hampered by a weakness of the flesh, has a statue, too.
“Sometime after Martin Luther King had a dream, and before President Obama gave us hope, it was Marion Barry that gave opportunity to Washington, D.C.,” Mayor Muriel E. Bowser said at the statue’s unveiling Saturday. “He embodied the spirit of Washington, where you fight hard and speak up.”
The eight-foot likeness, set on a corner of the District Building at 1350 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, is a stunning work of art. Sculptor Steven Weitzman , who has a studio in Brentwood, Md., captured the essence of a man who was probably the most personable and politically savvy elected official ever to serve the District.
Only Walter E. Washington, the first mayor of the modern era and “father of the city,” comes close to being as admired.
“He is not standing stoically or posed ‘heroically’ on a pedestal or being aggrandized in bronze,” Weitzman said. “That was never how I saw him. I wanted to convey a man in motion, walking toward someone but at the same time turning to acknowledge someone else. He walked with his head up, but he never looked down on people.”
In taped remarks shown at the ceremony, Rep. John Lewis of Georgia recalled a meeting in which the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was looking for ways to get more civil rights activists to become elected officials. Barry, a chemistry major at Fisk University who had been chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, led the way. “He was the first to take the civil rights movement from the streets into the government,” Lewis said.
Weitzman had that transition in mind while fashioning the sculpture, showing Barry waving one hand and appearing to begin a pivot.
“The civil rights movement, from my point of view, is marching and walking and sitting,” he said. “That is the physical essence of the nonviolent movement, and Barry was very much involved in that. That’s what I wanted to represent in that gesture.”
The face is remarkable for the true-to-life nuanced expression that Weitzman captured. There’s a touch of pride. And Barry certainly had reason to puff out his chest.
“One of the first things he recognized when he became mayor was that minority businesses were not included in the city’s procurement process,” recalled Michael Rogers, who served as city administrator during Barry’s fourth term. “In a city that was roughly 70 percent black at the time, black businesses were getting less than one percent of the city contracts.”
During the Barry years, that number rose close to 35 percent.
The statue also captures a glint of Barry’s vulnerability.
“Marion had a way of connecting to the very core of people he cared about,” his wife, Cora Masters Barry, told me. She had known Barry for nearly 50 years. “But it was hard for him to believe that anybody didn’t like or love him. He just couldn’t accept it.”
There is a hint of regret as well.
Fred Cooke Jr., who was D.C. corporation counsel during the Barry years and his longtime attorney, told me about a conversation in which he asked the mayor what he would do over if he had the chance.
“He told me that he wished he had done more to improve the school system,” Cooke said. “Marion said: ‘We dropped the ball on education. We got caught up in economic development and didn’t do enough about making schools better across the city.’ He knew he had shortcomings, and he was not too big to admit his mistakes.”
There were no specific mentions of Barry’s drug and sex scandals. But Barry’s torment and triumphs go hand in hand.
One speaker did say that Barry’s detractors had tried, and failed, to use his indiscretions to discredit the entirety of his life’s work. The crowd in front of the John A. Wilson Building agreed. A contingent of residents from Ward 8, which Barry represented on the D.C. Council until his death, arrived chanting, “Long live Marion Barry.”
In Greek lore, as we witness the hero struggling with his demons, we may come to recognize the shortcomings in ourselves. And we can admire him as much for his determination as for his accomplishments.
All heroes have feet of clay. Some just get theirs bronzed over and bolted to a stand.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.