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Marion Barry Could Have Been a Great Mayor in Any Other American City

How D.C. brought out the worst in its infamous leader


By Sunday afternoon, ten thousand people had signed a petition on shaming TMZ for emblazoning the death of Marion Barry as “Crack Mayor Dead.” Fair: In terms of public figures, Barry was hardly unique in his substance abuse or philandering. Mayor Jimmy Walker was a near-alcoholic with a string of mistresses, all common knowledge. Nelson Rockefeller’s sex life was an open secret among many (he died in the company of a mistress). Yet neither man’s legacy has been judged on their randier aspects. 

And although Barry had his thuggish moments in his earlier days, like many of his, shall we say, comrades, Barry in that period was infused with a sincere Marxist intention—sincere as in adopting the middle name Shepilov, after a Soviet pamphleteer. Violence against the powers that be, including transparent race-baiting in political negotiations, was seen as a necessary step towards liberation. Only presentism can label this as sheer barbarism.

Yet the ingenuous observer might be perplexed at the lushness of the paeans to Barry in the wake of his passing, from which one would assume that he had been a great mayor. That would be a tough case. Under Barry, a school system in which black schools in the old days had sometimes outperformed white ones was a catastrophe with leaders who couldn’t even specify how many students were enrolled. HUD rated its housing projects the nation’s worst in the 1990s. Governmental staffing was bloated at rates that beggared disbelief: One city nursing home had 300 staffers caring for 28 people. 

Despite the claims of many, racism cannot alone explain why things came out this way. Was racism in D.C. worse than in Cicero (where Martin Luther King in 1966 had experienced the most hateful crowds he had ever encountered), Los Angeles (where the cops were casually killing black men in cases like the murder of Ronald Stokes that helped galvanize Malcolm X in 1962), etc.? Or, was the problem that D.C. had no state to fund it? Well, how much could that have mattered when, for much of Barry’s reign, D.C. was a rich town because of the windfall from real estate taxes paid by its raft of lawyers and government workers? 

And in D.C. one can’t say, as is common about other cities, that the problem was low-skill factory jobs moving away and leaving black communities without a leg to stand on, as D.C. never had a manufacturing sector. What actually did Barry in was that D.C. presented a quirkier set of circumstances than most have been aware of, which brought out the worst in him. The office of mayor had been created in 1967 for low-key moderate black pol Walter Washington, to whom it was thought safe to give much wider powers of appointment than mayors typically have, useful in his new position under a new system. But this meant that in 1979 Barry inherited a post permitting him to shore up his political base with endless appointees at the snap of a finger, rather than having the more typical mayoral experience of acquiring the political smarts to wangle appointments less directly. It made all this easier that there was no major white working class base, or Republican establishment, in competition for these positions.

Meanwhile there was the wealth from all the home building, which also meant campaign contributions from contractors. Add to this that D.C. happened not to have an influential tabloid newspaper to pounce on Barry’s sex life and drug habit, and you have a perfect recipe for someone with sincere sociopolitical intent but hedonist hankerings—hardly rare—to run a city into the ground.

He didn’t do it on purpose. He saw himself as gifted at responding to the situation at hand, à la Otto von Bismarck. But Bismarck’s circumstances allowed him to channel Realpolitik into creating a new nation; Barry’s circumstances led to rather less. Many at first saw his emergence as a blessing for a “Chocolate City” on the rise, but Barry was the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time. He would likely have been able to do some good things in a more restrictive mayorship such as in Philadelphia. 

However, one might still have a hard time following a line of logic from this to cherishing Barry as an outright hero. 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.

The reasons for all of this suggested less that Barry was a maleficent crook than, for all of his stage presence, in over his head. Yet the idea that intent, charisma, and street cred are the mark of a Great Man is something else. I can’t help feeling this notion as a disturbingly unambitious judgment as to what black leadership has been, is, and could be.