News & Politics

A Washingtonian Reader on Marion Barry

Read highlights from the magazine's archives on DC's mayor-for-life.

Washingtonian’s December 1984 issue focused on Marion Barry’s seeming invincibility.

Through Washingtonian’s 49-year history, few people have had a much written about them as Marion Barry. The District’s “Mayor for Life,” who died Sunday morning at 78, was a fixture in this magazine’s pages and website since he entered the local political scene. Across his four terms as mayor and postscript as the DC Council member for Ward 8, Washingtonian chronicled Barry’s ambition, pitfalls, and survival.

In May 1980, John Sansing and Howard Means profiled “Boss Barry” and his unshakable political charm:

In person, the Mayor has presence. He has learned to look you in the eye, is softer and smoother. Up close, he is more a rangy center-fielder than a boxer, more an up-town lawyer than a union boss. Up close , you might mistake him for a banker, a diplomat, cocaine dealer, or the sort of academic that undergraduates find attractive. Up close, he is protean, slick, attractive—the hint of a caged animal wrestling inside him so he bounces into his secretary’s office as soon as he shows you out of his own, snaps his fingers time and again, and says, “Okay, what’s happening? What’s happening!”

By the middle of Barry’s second term, in 1984, he was cementing his place in DC history, but also starting to attract the attention of federal prosecutors interested in him and his inner circle. Sansing, Robert Pack, and Debra L. Green teamed up for a lengthy cover story about a mayor at the height of his power:

[Mary] Treadwell was convicted of conspiring to defraud the federal government and making false statements to federal officials about Clifton Terrace. She received three years in prison and a fine of $40,000, a sentence she is now appealing. And Marion Barry emerged untouched—neither indicted by the government nor implicated by testimony. One law-enforcement officer who managed to infiltrate Pride with an undercover informant in hopes of getting the goods on Barry had this to say: “Above all, remember that Barry lands on his feet. He’s done it time after time.

By April 1989, with DC gripped by a crack cocaine epidemic and a soaring homicide rate, Barry had become deeply unpopular with the white voters who were a crucial part of his earlier coalition. He was also dogged by questions about his own, then-rumored, drug use. But, as Barbara Matusow wrote, Barry was here to stay:

For most of 1989, the dominant news outlets in Washington have been pounding away at Mayor Barry, who found himself once again having to deny that he uses drugs. At the center of the tale was Charles Lewis, a Virgin Islands resident and friend of the mayor. He was staying at the downtown Ramada Inn in December, and a maid there told the management that he offered her cocaine for sex. Two detectives were on their way to Lewis’s room to investigate when the manager called them off. The reason: Marion Barry was up there with Lewis.

In November 2012, Barry, about to win his fourth—and final—term on the DC Council, was starting to fade physically and turning into a semi-regular gaffe machine. (Earlier that year, he made his infamous remarks about “dirty shops” owned by Asian residents.) But, as Harry Jaffe wrote, Barry was also fixated on his legacy, and making sure it was written on his own terms:

He’s spending much of his time tending to his legacy—and rewriting history along the way. In speeches and newsletters, he’s taking credit for things he was responsible for only when showing up to cut the ribbons. He calls himself the “job czar” in a ward where nearly a quarter of the residents are unemployed. He has adopted the “mayor for life” moniker bestowed as a joke by Washington City Paper columnist Ken Cummins in the 1990s. His summer newsletter, the Liberator, paints Ward 8 as a garden spot.

While the news industry fills up with remembrances of Barry, it’s worth going back to some of the other great profiles written during his life. The New Yorker’s David Remnick explained in 1994 why Barry, fresh out of a six-month jail stint following his Vista International Hotel incident, was primed for a political comeback. The Los Angeles Times, profiling Barry just before his January 1990 arrest, captured a mayor who, despite a failing scene, was in peak strutting form. “Jesse don’t wanna run nothing but his mouth,” Barry said, referring to his sometimes critic, the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Many years later, the Weekly Standard—of all magazines—ran the most deeply sympathetic look at Barry when Matt Labash spent a Sunday morning with him in 2009. Washington City Paper was less forgiving in 2012 when it questioned why Barry, by then in poor health and beset by embarrassing personal scandals, would run for his DC Council seat again. Labash, revisiting his profile in a bit of Barry encomia today, remembers the longtime mayor as “more human than the rest of us.”

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.