If you care about Washington, you inevitably expend enormous quantities of breath defending the place. You develop a long enemies list. There are the populist bullies, such as George W. Bush, who bash the inside-the-Beltway mentality. Then there are the New York snobs, the populists' strange bedfellows, who dismiss Washington as a dowdy provincial capital like Brasilia or Canberra, without the access to Prada and foie gras that a great city demands. But, after vigorously championing Washington, there are moments when severe self-doubt sets in. Those are usually the moments when your fellow citizens turn around, as they did last week, and elect Marion Barry.
I first met Barry as the eleven-year-old president of Ben W. Murch Elementary School's student council. Barry had come to grace a Murch Appreciation Day assembly. My presidential duties included greeting Barry and introducing him. "I'm Frankie Foer, your honor." "Good to meet you, Freddie," he replied. "It's Frankie," I said sheepishly. As he spoke in front of the student body, he turned and stared at me. "I wanted to congratulate your president, Freddie." Why couldn't he get my name straight? And why did his arm seem like a windshield wiper, constantly clearing his wet brow with a handkerchief despite the day's crispness? That there might be a biochemical explanation for his lack of short-term memory and profusion of sweat didn't occur to my young mind.
When the FBI busted Barry with a crack pipe at the Vista Hotel in 1990, that explanation became all too clear. By then, I had switched to private school, where Barry, the nabbed cad, emerged as a subject of endless fascination. The names of players in his trial, such as R. Kenneth Mundy and Rasheeda Moore, were tossed about in hallway banter. Kids wore the bitch set me up t-shirts to class, blaring Barry's famous response to the sting. While we greeted Barry's arrest with irony, our parents reacted with fury. As Barry deflected attention from his misdeeds with racial demagoguery, it seemed he wanted to punish our unsympathetic, mostly white Northwest neighborhoods.
The Barry administration never handled snow deftly. During the storm of 1987, which dumped 21 inches on the city, Barry wasn't around; apparently, he had collapsed after coking up in the Beverly Hills Hilton. But, after his arrest, the streets of our anti-Barry ward seemed to be part of a deliberate no-plow zone. From our homes, which turned into snow prisons, we watched TV reports showing cars moving freely around poorer neighborhoods, Barry redoubts. Interestingly, one of the mayor's cronies lived around the corner from our house. His street and alley were immaculately cleared. But, given the impassable blocks around our neighborhood, this gesture did him little good. In the Barry era, even the distribution of graft was inept.
Barry has done so much to destroy this city—its reputation, finances, racial comity—that it's hard not to view his return to the city council as a harbinger of apocalypse. On election night, as The Washington Post reported it, Barry told a crowd, "This is a victory not only for Marion Barry but for God and the people of Ward Eight," while a man in a beret chanted, "Black Power! Black Power!" This is the kind of scene one associates with the old self-aggrandizing coterie of demagogic urban leaders. But, truth be told, Barry's victory is not a seismic event nor a revanchist victory for a brand of racial politics that most pundits buried as a spent force. It is merely a final triumph for Barry's once-powerful machine. This time, the machine used 16 minivans to draw about 4,000 people to the polls in an economically blighted area—hardly enough to qualify as portentous, let alone a voter revolt.
Washingtonians have a powerful device for understanding Barry: His ever-changing wardrobe, which has yielded its own branch of semiotics. When he arrived in Washington as a young black nationalist, he donned the dashiki. This ensemble, however, didn't fit his ambitions for citywide success. As he curried favor with downtown developers, he switched to buttery suits, blue shirts with white pinpoint collars, and silk ties. Of course, the efficacy of this look eventually faded, too. After the Vista bust, when he needed to portray himself as a victim of The Man, the Kente cloth and Africana came back out of the closet. Finally, with this current return to the political arena, he has campaigned in a beige suit and a Panama hat. He looks like an aging caudillo, one of the corrupt elites who once desperately clung to power in Latin America.
But alarmism over Barry's return isn't merely unjustified, it tramples enjoyment of the moment's ironies. Barry, who once hosted a cruise to reward 200 government employees for planning an event that never happened, has returned as a champion of good government: opposing taxpayer subsidization of a baseball stadium. "These [baseball] owners stick you up. I won't let them stick you up," he has said, quite honorably. Honorably, that is, if you forget that Barry courted baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn in 1979 to bring a team to Washington. Does anyone doubt that he would have promised his own treasury-depleting enticements to a potential owner? Secondly, by becoming the leading spokesman for the anti-stadium cause, he essentially guarantees his movement's defeat. His most important potential allies, white Northwest liberals, consider Barry a bogeyman and will do everything to stymie him.
Fittingly, Barry's victory coincides with Joe Gibbs's second tour coaching the Washington Redskins. Barry and Gibbs are the tallest figures in recent city life. Both invoke nostalgia for the early '80s, a moment when Washington still looked like it might fulfill Home Rule's promise. But their paths starkly diverged. After he first retired, Gibbs became a successful businessman. He toned up his Hershey-fed body, and his skin fitted more tightly around his stern face. Retirement wasn't as kind to Barry. He struggles to climb podiums. His face looks gaunt. And, unlike Gibbs's visage, it is sapped of vitality, the cost of hard living. He continues in politics because he just can't leave the political scene, much as he could never leave hotel room parties. After a singular career, he has become a cliché: The historic figure who can't admit that he is history.
Franklin Foer is the editor of The New Republic and has written for Slate and New York magazine. His book, How Soccer Explains the World, was published in 2004.