News & Politics

Marion Barry’s Unstoppable Appeal

The "Mayor for Life" was flashy, imperious, and full of personal weaknesses. That's what made him human.

Photograph by Christopher Leaman.

From a distance, it was always hard to understand the appeal, even the tolerance, of Marion Barry. For the rest of the nation, he embodied all that was sick and corrupt about the District of Columbia. He was a walking indictment of the people who live there, a totem that suggested that people in DC would stand for nothing and fall for anything.

I shared that take when I moved to the District in 1995 to edit Washington City Paper just as Barry was elected, yet again, to serve as mayor, for what would be his fourth term. What, I asked, was wrong with these people? How could they pull the lever for someone as self-seeking and uninterested in the actual mechanics of the government?

He was, as it turned out, not a very good mayor, yet again. But he was a very good politician. Among the best.

The handsome son of a sharecropper who bootstrapped his way to a master’s degree in chemistry, he was plenty smart, but deeply flawed. He loved people, loved a party, perhaps too much. He was laid low, not by his opponents as he would like to suggest, but by own his own hand. In 1990—in a city reeling from the effects of an epidemic of crack cocaine—he became one more casualty, captured on film taking a hit on a glass pipe. He said, over and over, that he was set up, but still it was there for all to see. No one had a gun to his head. He saw a chance to get high, one more time, and he took it. He was convicted of a single count of drug possession and served six months in a federal prison.

It slowed him down, but it did not stop him, and he used his intact gifts as a politician to rise again quickly, returning to the city council in 1992. He was back, damaged but unrepentant.

In a town of people who owned a room when they walked, no one could touch the entrance magic of Marion Barry. Chronically late, the tension and anticipation would build. Will he show? When will he show?

And then he would walk in, with a stride that was a combination of pimp-roll and politician, flanked by his familiars. He knew and understood the stardom of political office, its regal components, and comported himself with both ease and majesty that was remarkable to behold. He was more emperor than bureaucrat, a rock star working his fan base in wholesale and then retail ways.

He knew everyone, remembered everyone, and was sincere in his connection with all of them. He may have failed the District time and again, but he looked after the people who lived there, if that makes any sense. There was always room for a daughter or nephew in a public works job, or the cousin who was lost in the corrections vortex. He did not make government work in large and important ways, but on a retail level, he could always fix things, reach in and come to the behalf of his supporters.

I never actually saw him govern. In his fourth term, he walked smack dab into a huge budget deficit approaching $1 billion dollars and the city’s credit in shambles with its efforts to find money reduced to junk bond status. Cornered, he solicited Congress to take over responsibility for vast swaths of city services. They took over the city instead. In what he called “a rape of democracy,” Congress agreed to bail the city out, but in return, they instituted a control board that had authority for every aspect of governance. The mayor for life ended up in charge of not much—parks and recreation, tourism, and the libraries. He no longer had his hands on the levers of government and he could not deliver goodies to his base as he once did.

It was a rebuke to the city, but it was most specifically a rebuke to him. He knew that as long as he was mayor, there would be no return of self-rule and declined to run for a fifth term.

Congress could not take away the trappings of his office or his ability to punch up, to speak on behalf of the forgotten. Never mind that he and his administration were mired in a no man’s land that was mostly of his own making, and that their dispossession was the result of a culture of fecklessness he perpetuated. He was still the people’s champion even though he never came to their behalf as mayor in a meaningful way.

In that way, he became a giant middle finger that would close to a fist of black empowerment when he took the dais. No one, not Al Sharpton, not Jesse Jackson, could articulate grievance as well as Barry. The defiance his fourth term represented meant he spent his term punching up against an opponent who had all the cards.

Everyone who covered Barry will shake their head at his ward heeler ways, his smoke-and-mirror budgeting, his inability to bring any of his employees or departments to account. Those failures, he was always quick to point out, did not belong to the District alone. Even as he stood on two decades of smoking rubble, he would suggest that the answer to all the ailed the District had to do with a chronic disregard from its overseers, a lack of anything approaching independence.

Those same people, including me, would tell you that on a personal level, no one was more fun to talk to. Self-aware, in on every joke, conspiratorial in hilarious ways, his magnetism only amplified the closer you got. His frankness around race was bracing and served as a corrective to the general practice of many others who always chose to walk around the elephant in the room. He was, it should be said, a bit of a racist and an intolerant of difference, going after Asians and, in his late years, campaigning against gay marriage despite having been an early champion of gay rights. But it none of it hurt his appeal to the people of DC’s disenfranchised Ward 8.

Whenever we talked, alone or in a small group, he loved to engage, to debate and was adroit in defense of himself and the city he loved, but lacked the tools to govern.

And his personal weaknesses, his brokenness, were part of his appeal, at least to me. In an era of plastic, over-managed political image, he was all too human. We knew who he was, he knew who he was, and yet he was still nascent, still rising. His appeal was less about forgiveness than a gut acknowledgement by many that we all are not always who we would like to be, that temptation and weakness were baked into human existence. To everyone who would point to him as a symbol of the failures of black leadership, of the gullibility of his base, might want to keep in mind two words: Rob Ford.

Barry went on to serve on the DC Council, still getting in jams—taxes, traffic stops, an on-again, off-again relationship with sobriety—but continued to shadow box all who would lay him low.

In a fundamental way, Barry was not wrong about what might happen if there was a change in who actually held power. In the past decade, there has been a huge in-migration of new money, new people, and a new aesthetic. And while the city may be thriving in that sense, many people who lived there in Barry’s prime have been pushed out, pushed aside, and dispossessed anew in a rapidly gentrifying city. The conspiracy that his admirers always talked about—The Plan—the one where rich white people would take the city over, turned out to be more real than not.

We are left, in today’s made-over, upscaled Washington, with not much of a legacy apart from Barry’s statue in the DC version of Madame Tussauds’ wax museum where he stands among other District icons. The statue is regal, with a nice suit and a twinkle in the eye. It’s a good likeness, a reminder that he knew what others did not, that though he was far from perfect, he was perfectly capable of surviving tall waves that would have crushed many others. He was, as it turned out, unstoppable, answering not to overlords or opponents, but only to God and nature. Those forces, to which every man and woman are subject, called him home on Sunday morning.

David Carr writes the Media Equation column for the New York Times and was editor of Washington City Paper from 1995-2000.