The four-time DC mayor died yesterday at age 78. David Remnick remarks, “When Marion Barry was running the city as mayor, and then in his wilderness years—as prisoner, outcast, and councilman—what you thought of him depended largely on who you were, what ward you lived in, what your advantages and disadvantages were, what you were willing to tolerate and forgive.” David Plotz, who did his college thesis on Barry, remembers the complicated figure:
He looked at the numbers, and devised a new formula, adapting the machine politics practiced a generation earlier by Irish and Italian mayors. What better way to lock in a loyal voting base than with jobs? By Barry’s second term, D.C. had by far the largest city government in the United States per capita. He coupled a permanent bureaucracy with a massive summer jobs program for kids. When I interviewed Washingtonians in the 1990s about why they were still voting for Marion Barry, an astonishing number cited the summer job he gave them back in the 1970s. …
Marion Barry won the prize of city government at the moment that cities began to slide, and before their recent revival. As a result, he left few tangible accomplishments. He inflicted on my city a bureaucracy that was too big, a mediocre police department, and horrid schools. Since the end of Barry’s ridiculous fourth mayoral term in January 1999, D.C.’s politicians have run away from him. Our mayoral candidates are competent, dreary, and technocratic. Unlike Barry, they seem more interested in governing their city than serving themselves. Marion Barry loomed over D.C. politics for 43 years, but there is no Barryism.
Adam Serwer explains why, despite Barry’s huge flaws, many think of him in a positive light:
Barry who was elected mayor four times, including once after that crack conviction, owed his success to being an unparalleled retail politician who could mollify the city’s powerful business interests, isolate political opponents, and make the city’s working class and poor believe he spoke for them. He was a master at exploiting black racial anxieties, which makes him different from many of America’s most successful politicians only in that his constituency, and therefore his culture war appeals, were black. Within the city, he was a champion who first gave its working-class black residents a taste of the economic prosperity that racial apartheid had long denied them. He was the realization of D.C. residents’ long-denied democratic aspirations. There is much more to Barry than the time he got set up.
From the outside, observers could see only Barry’s flaws, his corruptions and addictions. The mystery of Barry’s political survival despite numerous run-ins with the law, mismanagement of the city government, and numerous allegations of sexual assault is easier to solve if you know the history of the city. Barry didn’t bring corruption to D.C. He changed who benefited from it.
Jack Shafer turns to the Barry seen by journalists:
[H]e continued to make great copy and inspire journalists, as Matt Labash demonstrated in his 2009 Weekly Standard profile, in which he accompanied Barry around the city for several days. Even in his autumn, Barry’s vitality still glowed, but with the softness of a light about to go out. Labash, who unlike so many other journalists accepts Barry on his own terms, collects a quotation from long-time TV news anchor Jim Vance, a Barry friend, that if pared down a few words could serve as his honest tombstone epitaph.
“There were so many of us who had so much hope for Marion,” Vance told Labash. “I don’t know too many people that were more blessed or that had more skills than Marion had, nor too many people who were a bigger disappointment, quite frankly.”
Jason Zengerle recalls Barry’s life in the public eye:
[T]he greatest episode of the Marion Barry Show came in 1990, when he was caught on a FBI-operated surveillance camera smoking crack in a hotel room with a girlfriend and then being led away in handcuffs muttering, “Bitch set me up.” His subsequent trial only heightened the drama. One morning, I took a day off from my summer job (one, alas, that I actually had to work at since it wasn’t through Barry’s program) and took advantage of my new driver’s license to drive down to the D.C. courthouse at 4 o’clock in the morning to get in line to attend that day’s session. I don’t remember much of what occurred inside the courtroom, but outside the courthouse, on the pavilion that became known as “Barry Beach,” it was a circus like I’d never seen. Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam security guards handled crowd control. George Stallings, an excommunicated Catholic priest who’d become Barry’s spiritual advisor, led some sort of prayer circle. And Sam Donaldson tried to interview Al Sharpton about Colin Powell while being harassed by the RC Cola Lady—a woman who dressed in head-to-toe blue spandex and balanced 2-liter bottle of said soda on her braided head and was very eager for her own 15 minutes of fame. After Sharpton had denounced Powell as an “Uncle Tom” for the third time to Donaldson, only to have the shot ruined yet again by the RC Cola Lady, the newsman and the minister agreed to meet up later. And at the center of the circus, conspicuously silent on the advice of his attorney, was Barry—a Barnum-like figure in an expensive suit with a kente-cloth scarf draped around his neck.
And John McWhorter questions the tone of the coverage:
One senses that Barry is being measured on the basis of intentions rather than achievement. As far back as 1984, none other than the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen was enthusing that “Before home rule, there were two trash pickups a week; now there is only one. Before home rule, the traffic signals worked; now they don’t. But the ultimate importance of home rule is not in efficiency, but in pride.”
Pride, indeed—Barry’s lift-off effort was called Pride, Inc. It was about lifting poor black people, and especially ones with checkered backgrounds, into entrepreneurship. There were six gas stations, a candymaking outfit, gardening and maintenance firms. The PR couched its target as an archetypal “Mr. Jones,” a black farm worker from the Deep South down on his luck. But no one today traces their success to Pride, Inc.; the efforts either went under or were refitted as criminal organizations.
(Photo: : Pahel Brunis works on a mural of Marion Barry as people remember the life of the former mayor of Washington, DC on Sunday November 23, 2014 in Washington, DC. By Matt McClain/ The Washington Post via Getty Images)