The Magazine

A Rake's Progress

Marion Barry bares (almost) all.

Sep 7, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 47 • By MATT LABASH
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Let me live in a house by the side of the road,
Where the race of men go by;
The men who are good and the men who are bad,
As good and as bad as I.
--from Sam Walter Foss's 'House by the Side of the Road,' the first poem Marion Barry recited in church as a boy

In most conceptions of Washington, D.C., the city operates on Eastern Standard Time. But those who pass through Marion Barry's orbit know there's another zone which has nothing to do with the mean solar time of the 75th meridian west of the Greenwich Observatory. It's called "Barry Time." The former four-term mayor of D.C. will show up for speeches, meetings, and civic events whenever he damn well pleases.

This translates into many minutes, even hours, of waiting for Barry to appear. So after being slated to hang out with Barry for several days, I am surprised to receive a call from his spokesperson, Natalie Williams, two days before we're supposed to meet.

"Mr. Barry wants to start early," Natalie informs. "He wants you to come to church with him tomorrow."

"Great," I say. "What time does church start?"

"Eleven A.M.," she says.

"Okay. And what time should I meet him before church?" I ask.

"Eleven-thirty," she responds with complete seriousness.

Barry, now in his second postmayoral term as a councilman representing the city's poorest ward, is these days something less than a political powerhouse, but my interest had recently been rekindled in the man universally known as one of the two or three finest crack-smoking politicians our nation has ever produced. A 1990 FBI sting yielded grainy video of Barry holding a crack pipe to his lips that was broadcast around the world (launching a booming "Bitch-set-me-up" T-shirt industry), and his name became a late-night comic's rim shot, especially as he won one more mayoral term in 1994 after serving six months in jail.

Now, after a relatively dormant postmayoral period of local politicking, serial brushes with the law, health and taxman problems, with the occasional drug relapse, Barry seemed to be enjoying a renaissance for both good and bad reasons. The good, for him, has come in the form of a balanced, years-in-the-making documentary called The Nine Lives of Marion Barry, now in regular rotation on HBO. It traces Barry's arc from an idealistic, dashiki-wearing civil rights activist, through his rise and fall as mayor, to his current redemptive plateau-period, a life which has made him the singular figure in the history of D.C.'s municipal politics.

The bad came this past 4th of July weekend, when Barry was arrested for "stalking" his former girlfriend, Donna Watts-Brighthaupt, after an argument they'd had on the way to Rehoboth Beach. She changed her mind about the trip and returned to D.C., flagging down an officer when Barry was allegedly pursuing her in his car. The stalking charge looked like an honest lover's tiff, amounted to nothing, and was quickly dropped.

In typical Barry fashion, however, there were baroque touches that gave the story national oxygen. For instance, the Barry team called a late-night press conference to denounce Watts's psychiatric fitness, and she showed up in the middle of it, loudly denouncing their denunciation. Scribes at the Washington City Paper, who still enjoy riding Barry like the village Zipcar, detailed the knotty love triangle between Barry, Donna, and her ex-husband--whom Barry had had banished from the City Council building--and ran transcripts from leaked voicemail tapes of a lovesick Barry trying to woo Donna back. They did the same with a taped fight in which Donna proclaimed that Barry had booted her out of a Denver hotel room "cause I wouldn't suck your dick," a quote that provided likely the most memorable cover-line in City Paper history.

Still, this was just the entertainment portion of the program. The real trouble was Watts-Brighthaupt's employment arrangement with Barry, who had (legally) garnered nearly $1 million in earmarks for various nonprofits in his ward--which journalistic Nosy Neds discovered had all sorts of irregularities, such as outfits overseen by Barry's City Council staffers, contracts thrown to women he'd dated (not just Watts-Brighthaupt), people being paid for do-nothing jobs, alleged forgeries, etc.

Nobody's yet alleged Barry personally profited. For all the perceptions of Barry over the years as a dirty politician, he's been a remarkably clean one on the financial front. Having periodically teetered on the edge of personal insolvency, even as two of his deputy mayors went upriver for embezzlement and corruption in the 1980s, Barry has never been caught with his hand in the cookie jar, and not for lack of investigators trying.