District Restoration D.C.'s (in)famous mayor makes an admirable, if repetitive, bid to extend his legacy

Mayor For Life: The Incredible Story of Marion Barry, Jr.

Marion Barry, Jr. and Omar Tyree (Strebor Books, 2014), 336 pages

“Oh, he’s just like any other man,” Rick Blaine, Humphrey Bogart’s character in Casablanca, says when asked about Captain Renault, played by Claude Rains: “Only more so.”

Asked to describe a politician, we might say something similar: Just like any other person, only more so.

The average person, for example, wants to be liked, but a politician sharpens that desire into a kind of weapon. It was once said that if Bill Clinton were in a room with 99 people who shared his views, he could be found in a corner trying to win over the one who didn’t. Most of us take satisfaction from helping others when we can, but politicians (the better ones, I should add) see this as their calling in life. Your typical well-adjusted citizen thinks highly of himself but seems downright self-hating when set beside someone whose job it is to convince others he is uniquely qualified to lead them. And while the majority of folks may struggle to keep their appetites in check (“You can’t eat just one”), office-seekers fight this battle on a whole different plane. Success in politics, it would seem, depends in part on keeping these qualities in their proper proportions. The trouble starts when they get out of balance.

That brings us to the case of Marion Barry Jr., currently a city councilman in Washington, D.C., and, more famously, that city’s mayor for four terms spanning 20 years (with time off for bad behavior) beginning in the late 1970s. More famous still—and the single fact most non-Washingtonians know about Barry—is that in 1990, in Washington’s Vista Hotel, he was caught on videotape smoking crack in the presence of a woman with whom he was trying to have extramarital sex, all moments before FBI agents charged in as if invading Normandy. I was in D.C., where I grew up, when the story broke. To have a TV on was to see this exceptionally sorry spectacle, complete with a stunned, helpless Barry moaning over and over, “The goddamn bitch set me up.” (It is a measure of the sordidness of the whole mess that Barry claims, in his own defense, that he used the drug only as a way to get his companion in bed.) Barry was indeed set up—great pains were taken to induce him to commit a crime, for which he was then arrested—and when he calls himself the target of a white moneyed establishment that felt threatened by his advocacy of black business, I for one am not prepared to say he’s wrong. But most people, understandably, don’t think about that, and Barry remains, in their minds, that mayor who got videotaped smoking crack.

This book—like Barry’s life—illustrates two points: Just because someone has done wrong doesn’t mean he isn’t a victim and, sometimes, when a person brags, he actually has something to brag about.

A desire to change that perception, to have his legacy extend beyond “The goddamn bitch set me up,” is behind Barry’s book, Mayor for Life, written with Omar Tyree. His strategy is to trumpet his life’s work and accomplishments; what this politician’s appetites have ruined, in other words, his ego sets out to restore. If the crack-smoking episode is the indelible stain on his career, it may be the saving grace of what would otherwise be an unreadably self-congratulatory book, since even a world champion egotist would find it hard to brag about what happened at the Vista Hotel. The boasts fly thick and fast throughout the rest of Mayor for Life, though. Still, this book—like Barry’s life—illustrates two points: Just because someone has done wrong doesn’t mean he isn’t a victim and, sometimes, when a person brags, he actually has something to brag about.

Barry overcame a great deal to become mayor of the nation’s capital. Born in 1936 in Mississippi to a sharecropping family, picking cotton himself beginning at age 5 or 6, he and his two sisters were effectively without a father once their mother decided to leave with them for other areas in the South—Arkansas and then Memphis, where their mother became a domestic worker. Poverty, segregation, and fatherlessness did not prevent Barry from being an excellent student and athlete. Winning partial scholarships and making up the difference by waiting tables and working other jobs, Barry attended LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis, where he majored in chemistry. His activism flourished during those years: He served as head of the school’s NAACP Youth Council, and his open letter to the (black) president of LeMoyne-Owen, demanding that a (white) trustee either apologize for his racist remarks or resign, nearly got Barry expelled a month before graduation. (He was allowed to graduate only after threatening to organize a shutdown of the campus.) Barry’s speech at a rally in Memphis won the admiration of another speaker at the same event, one Martin Luther King Jr. He went on to graduate studies in chemistry at Fisk University, the University of Kansas, and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, teaching undergraduates and completing all the work for his doctorate except a dissertation. Meanwhile, he continued to oppose segregation, spending a weekend in jail after participating in a sit-in in Nashville in 1960.

It was Barry’s work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, of which he was a founding member and the first chairman, that brought Barry to D.C. in 1965. Initially heading the SNCC office there, he found in Washington a mission and challenge whose scope went beyond what he had been sent to do, and he eventually broke with the group to become a local activist on his own terms. In the mid-1960s, blacks made up close to 70 percent of the population in Washington but controlled nothing there. The city was run by a three-member (and all-white) commission appointed by the federal government; the police force, 75 percent white, was a model of diversity and progressivism compared with the fire department; more than a decade after Brown v. Board of Education, the schools were all but officially segregated, and residential segregation was even worse. Starting in his capacity as an SNCC representative but continuing on his own, Barry organized a successful movement to protest bus-fare hikes that would have hit Washington’s black residents hardest, and he spearheaded the Free D.C. campaign, which led President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967 to appoint Walter Washington, a black man, as D.C.’s first mayor. (Residents were not able to elect their own mayor and city council members until 1973.) Turning to politics, Barry was elected to the school board and then the city council before winning the mayor’s race in 1978.

As mayor Barry instituted youth employment programs, diversified the police force, and substantially increased the percentage of business contracts that went to minority firms, earning the eternal loyalty of many blacks and, according to Barry, the resentment of whites who felt excluded. Plaguing Barry’s administration were several instances and many rumors of corruption, as well as the 1980s crack epidemic and its attendant violence, which for a time won D.C. a reputation as America’s murder capital—a problem that “no one was prepared for” and that “simply took over,” in Barry’s words, but one whose solution, it could be argued, did not include the mayor’s being caught with a crack pipe in his mouth.

On the subject of his drug use and womanizing, Barry portrays himself as having succumbed to the never-ending temptations to which his position exposed him. Voters quickly forgave Barry, electing him to the city council shortly after the end of his six-month prison term and then, in 1994, returning him to the mayor’s office. There, he faced the city’s $700 million deficit, which he blamed on D.C.’s mayor from 1991 to 1995, Sharon Pratt Kelly (who blamed it on Barry). Ironically, given Barry’s home-rule activism of the 1960s, he ceded much of the running of the city to what became a federally appointed Financial Control Board. In 1998, after one post-prison mayoral term, “tired, weary and exhausted,” he announced his decision not to seek reelection.

(In another bit of irony, after making several mentions over the course of the book of his support for the gay community, Barry—now a councilman again—explains his opposition to a bill that would allow same-sex marriage: “My advice at the council hearings was that we needed to move more slowly on the issue of same-sex marriages as it became more acceptable in certain communities, and at that time, it wasn’t supported in Ward 8.” Surely he remembers that very same language from when it was used to oppose racial desegregation.)

“Tired, weary and exhausted” is hardly the only instance of redundancy in Mayor for Life. The book has 324 pages but ought to have 216. By my estimation, every third sentence repeats information from the two before it. The book’s cover reads “Marion Barry, Jr. and Omar Tyree,” though Tyree’s contribution is hard to discern. Presumably a co-writer’s job is to produce a well-written text that preserves its subject’s voice. We can give Tyree the benefit of the doubt for the voice part, but there is still the matter of good writing, which—well, judge for yourself:

“My attorney, R. Kenneth Mundy, told me that I needed to get treatment immediately before the trial proceedings. . . . He said, ‘You need to go to treatment before the trial.’”

“Without my security detail, I could have been harmed or hurt out there.” [Barry/Tyree’s italics]

“There were a lot of guys there from different walks of life whom had gotten themselves mixed up into trouble.”

“They realized that I was strong enough to keep up the fight and the hope with the hard work that it took to continue to guide such a great city that still needed great leadership.”

“Unfortunately, Lorraine’s daughter was the only one whom could be saved.”

But it was posterity, and not the Lovely Sentence Award, that the 78-year-old Barry had in mind when he set out to write this book. Will Mayor for Life succeed in rescuing his reputation among current and future generations across the nation? Doubtful. But the book is a best-seller in D.C., the home of many who have loved Barry for decades, who will no doubt continue to love him. He may have to be content with that.