Marion Barry

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
May 24 1998 3:30 AM

Marion Barry

Indonesia's not the only place whose dictator is leaving.

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Critics of Marion Barry--and who's not one--have been saying for years that his Washington, D.C., is like a Third World capital--squalid, dangerous, and corrupt. The District has never seemed more like a banana republic than in the past few weeks. Barry, America's mini-Suharto, has dragged it into an embarrassing, protracted drama: It is in rack and ruin, he had overstayed his welcome, everyone wanted him to leave, and he wasn't sure he wanted to oblige.

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From the beginning of April until this week, the mayor toyed with his city about whether to seek re-election to a fifth term this fall. Largely ignored during his current term, Barry was at the center of attention again. His Hamlet act had the city on edge, and he loved it. His press conferences were packed. The Washington Post launched a daily "Barry Watch" column. National media were calling. His every hint--and he dropped lots of them--was parsed for significance. Each week was supposed to be the week he announced his decision but, having the time of his life, Barry kept putting it off.

Now, with his usual excruciating/exquisite sense of timing, Barry has followed Indonesian President Suharto's retirement announcement with his own. The inevitable comparisons to that dictator aside, Barry probably picked the right moment to bow out: He's on top again--briefly. A Tuesday Washington Post poll found that Barry is the front-runner for the Democratic primary, attracting 29 percent of voters, nearly twice as many as his closest competitor.

For those who still can't believe the ex-crackhead was re-elected once, this survey was unfathomable. How could he be ahead? (I won't begin to justify all the bad reasons for Barry's popularity--race resentment, patronage, etc.--but will try to explain one good one here.) Even for Washingtonians who had forgiven Barry his crimes, the prospect of another campaign appalled. The post-comeback Barry hasn't much changed his ways: He still favors racial rhetoric and Congress-bashing. (And he may not have shaken his worst old habits: The Last of the Black Emperors: The Hollow Comeback of Marion Barry in a New Age of Black Leaders, a new biography by longtime D.C. journalist Jonetta Rose Barras, alleges Barry may have bought drugs during his current term. It also alleges he made sexual advances toward male staffers. Barry has called the book "garbage.") The same Post poll that found Barry would win the 1998 Democratic primary also found that the vast majority of Washingtonians--two-thirds--preferred he not run.

Illustration by Philip Burke
David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

But Barry is a political creature: Why would he skip a race he thought he could win? The answer is that the Mayor Barry of 1998 is not the Mayor Barry of 1985. There is no good professional reason for him to hold office. He's scarcely mayor of anything. Since Barry returned to the office in January 1995, the District power structure has devoted itself to emasculating him. Within a few months of his inauguration, the Barry-loathing Republican Congress installed a Control Board to oversee the city's shaky finances. Congress and the Control Board soon stripped the mayor of authority to issue contracts or manage budgets. Last year, they usurped his control of the city bureaucracy, removing departments of public safety, welfare, health care, public works, and basically everything else that matters from his supervision. Barry was left with the dregs: recreation, libraries, the Office of Aging. (The transfer of power has been good news for the city, which has erased a huge deficit and begun to stem the exodus of middle-class residents.)

Barry does still get to revel in the trappings of mayorhood. He continues to flounce around Washington like the emperor he once was. He has a limo at his beck and call. His personal security force included an incredible 30 officers until Congress forced him to halve it last year. A crowd of flunkies and yes-women surrounds him. Barry still issues self-aggrandizing statements in which he takes credit for things he didn't do and announces "initiatives" that will never be initiated. And he still takes grand foreign tours on which he behaves as if he is visiting royalty. (This week: Taiwan.)

"Losing the actual power bothers him, but I don't think it's as big a deal as the aura of power," says a longtime friend. "It's not just the limo, because anyone can have a limo. He is the Mayor. He really enjoys being The Man."

But Barry recognized that the trappings of power were tenuous, too. If he had been re-elected, Congress would have probably punished him by cutting his salary; eliminating the security guards who remain; and stripping him of the few, pathetic agencies he does control.

Not having lost his sharpness, Barry understood the emptiness of his position. If re-elected, he would be a nonentity, and Marion Barry cannot stand to be a nonentity. So why not hand the job off? Congress will be more likely to return home rule and rearm the mayor if Barry is gone. Besides, he has nothing left to prove. He already has made the greatest political comeback in U.S. history. The Post poll predicting a Barry primary win allows him to quit with a bang, not a whimper: "He can go out saying, 'See, they still love me. I told you I would win. Bye ,y'all,' " says Barras.

Barry's friends and local business leaders have been trying for months to find a way to let him exit with honor--to give him a gracious payoff in exchange for his decision to step down. It's a good idea. Barry has been a public servant--of a sort--and America traditionally finds respectable retirements for its former leaders. Pols spend their dotage as think tank "scholars" or consultants or part-time lobbyists (see: Bob Dole) and are trotted out periodically for sage commentary. Even if Barry doesn't quite deserve the same, Washington deserves not to have its ex-mayor disgraced. Barry's retirement team has talked to local universities and historically black colleges about a position for him. He is also planning lecture tours and shopping a memoir.