A Rake's Progress
Marion Barry bares (almost) all.
Sep 7, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 47 • By MATT LABASH
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.
Barry has audaciously proclaimed he's done nothing wrong--if you can't throw work to qualified girlfriends with City Council-approved taxpayer money, just who can you throw work to? Barry insists he wouldn't give a job to his mother if she wasn't qualified. Still, as Barry points out, "Old Man Daley gave his son the insurance contract, and was criticized for it. He said, 'If a father can't help his son, what the hell is he here for?' "
The whole messy business has resulted in the City Council authorizing an ethics investigation of Barry by superlawyer Robert Bennett (something of an expert on ethically challenged politicians, having represented Bill Clinton). It has also reportedly piqued the more serious investigative interest of the feds, who've never lacked for zeal in building cases against Barry, having spent tens of millions doing so going all the way back to the FBI's 1967 file on "Marion S. Barry, Jr., Negro Militant."
When I ask a Barry staffer if her boss is spooked by the new attention, she says, "No. He never gets spooked. We get spooked." By the lights of longtime Barry aficionados, this latest doesn't rank very high on his scandal Richter Scale. A ward boss throwing sketchy patronage jobs to friends? It could make a Barry connoisseur very sleepy. Plus, some Barry-watchers think he might be losing a step. There wasn't even any cocaine involved.
Yet the scandal wasn't my reason for visiting hizzoner. Barry-bashing has been a near ubiquitous sport, and approaching him in order to find holes in his stories is about as sporting as taking candy from a quadriplegic preemie. Rather, I was curious to take his measure as a human being, which many forget he still is, despite the caricatures and self-parodies. For 73 years, over 40 of them in public life, Barry has kept rearing up like a plastic varmint in a Whac-a-Mole game. No matter how many times he's batted about the head with a mallet, he relentlessly reappears.
Like countless Maryland commuters, I drive past the turnoff to Marion Barry's house every time I go to the District without ever giving his Congress Heights neighborhood in Southeast Washington a thought. The Suitland Parkway that runs past it doubles as the most common artery from the city to Andrews Air Force Base--Air Force One frequently casts shadows on your car as you drive it. The denizens of Ward 8 commonly refer to their locale as "east of the river"--by which they mean the Anacostia River, an 8.4 mile long, meandering toxic soup which is about as clear as Swiss Miss and where up to 68 percent of the brown bullhead catfish have been found to have liver tumors. Flowing into the much more celebrated Potomac, it's the kind of river most people tend to forget, just as they do the ward that nestles it.
For decades, Ward 8 has been the crime and poverty and every-other-dubious-statistic headquarters of D.C. It is the land that the real estate bubble forgot. Amidst the check-cashing places and screw-top liquor stores, it contains such tourist meccas as the reeking Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment plant and St. Elizabeth's psychiatric hospital, where Ezra Pound sweated out his insanity plea for treason and John Hinckley Jr. can compose rock operas for Jodie Foster in peace. While only minutes from Capitol Hill, and from the more prosperous black suburbs in Maryland's Prince George's County, Ward 8 might as well be in Burkina Faso to the commuting class. The only reason to pull off there is if you needed to buy a quick fifth of Hennessey for the ride home, or possibly something less legal.
It is here, after cruising past street signs bearing the names "Martin Luther King" and "Malcolm X," that I find Barry's house, a rented red-brick duplex. (He lives alone, as Cora Masters Barry, his fourth wife, left him in 2002, without going through the formality of getting a divorce.) The window shades are yellowed and drawn. There is bird splat on the bricks. A Metro bus-stop pole is posted right in front of it, meaning Barry sometimes has a chance to involuntarily meet constituents, as some end up waiting for their ride on his barren concrete porch.
I knock on the door--the doorbell's missing--even though I'm a good half hour early. I don't want to make Barry late for being late to church. "Come in!" he yells. And as I do, I find him sitting on the couch, wearing track pants and a loose workout shirt, eating a greasy, four-course IHOP take-out breakfast on a TV tray in front of his big-screen. He looks both gaunter and more appealing than during the glory years, when the drugging and boozing often swelled him up like a sweating, smirking sausage. His skin is smooth--he believes in the healing balm of moisturizer--and the lines on his face make him look more avuncular and settled.
The furniture is no-frills--the dining room table is pushed against the wall, and some chairs still have the plastic on them. There is no vanity wall of past glories. Décor is minimalist, besides the Afro-centric statuary and Barack Obama's beatific mug on a commemorative "From Slavery to the White House" blanket draped over his couch. The coffee table is littered with books of the self-improvement variety: the Bible, M. Scott Peck's The Road Less Traveled, Gary Chapman's The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate.
Most jarring is the end table littered with prescriptions--13 bottles in all--and syringes. It looks like Elvis's medicine cabinet, circa 1977. At first I think maybe I have the wrong day and have walked into a Vista Hotel-scene redux (the location of his 1990 crack bust). But I'm looking instead at all the meds he takes after a February kidney transplant. The syringes, he explains, are for "taking my sugar," which he has to do as a longtime diabetic. Barry has other health issues, too. He has hypertension. His cancerous prostate is a distant memory, the surgery for which caused some incontinence issues. He keeps a urinal next to his bed for middle-of-the-night emergencies. It's not the most ideal arrangement for a legendary Romeo, but, as he points out, "The alternative is worse."
Barry speaks in a mumbly whisper ("I'll talk louder" he repeatedly promises when I keep checking my tape recorder for pick-up), but seems in fine spirits. He's used to dodging bullets. With varying success, as he reminds me of the time in 1977 when Muslim terrorists took hostages in the District Building when Barry was a councilmember. It was shortly before his first mayoral run, and he caught a bullet in the chest. "Do you have a scar?" I ask. "Let's see," he says, lifting up his shirt, so that within ten minutes of arriving, I'm eyeball to areola with Barry's left nipple. It's a move that's very Barry. Most times, he reveals nothing at all. Then he reveals too much.
After about 30 seconds of examination, we can't decide if what we're looking at is a fading gunshot wound or a skin blemish. But for Barry's semi-nakedness, he's still adept at showing less than everything. The point I shouldn't miss, one of the reasons he wants to bring me to church, is that "I go through this time and time again, when if it weren't for God, I wouldn't be here." He catalogs various dramatic happenings in his life: making it out of Mississippi as the son of sharecroppers, near misses during his SNCC-organizer days in the civil rights movement, the Vista Hotel.
I wasn't even going to bring the latter up until our second date, as it's generally bad manners to mention your host's crack bust straightaway. But since he mentions it, I pursue a bit, asking him how he felt when he realized he'd been stung. "I didn't realize what happened," he says. "It happened so fast. And so my instinct was as I said 'This bitch set me up.' "
"She kinda did," I offer, an objectively indisputable point.
"Not kinda--she did!" he reiterates of Rasheeda Moore, the former model and Barry paramour. While Barry admits to using cocaine "recreationally" beforehand (several witnesses at his trial said he "recreated" habitually), he says he had not smoked crack before (also at odds with the testimony of witnesses), claiming he even needed to go to the bathroom to practice holding the pipe, so as not to look like an amateur in front of Moore. In the video, Barry is seen asking her multiple times how to do it and brushing off her initial invites. But, he adds, "Rasheeda could talk an Eskimo into buying a refrigerator."
One of the more underappreciated, pathos-laden aspects of the video is how the main impetus for Barry's being present "was sex," as he freely admits, and he repeatedly grovels to Rasheeda on the video. I mention that I recall him grabbing her breast. "Tried to," he readily agrees. "The manly instincts took over. . . . I guess what was probably in my mind--first time I thought about it--was if I took a hit, maybe she would change her mind about sex."
"So your motives were pure," I note.
His cellphone rings, as it incessantly does, and he answers it. "I'm gettin' ready to go to church, let me call you back." He hangs up, saying, "I'm glad you're interested in all that. Very few people ask me."
Of his own culpability in the matter, Barry's a little less forthright. He says he's thankful to God, as it "could've turned out another way." I point out that the incident and resulting trial turned out pretty badly: serial humiliation, his third wife leaving him, and eventually six months in jail (not, actually, from the Vista incident, but from another misdemeanor possession that was part of the 14-count indictment). "People assume there was crack cocaine in there. The jurors didn't believe it," he says.
Some pro-Barry jurors did speculate that the pipe was filled with baking soda. But he at least assumed there was crack in it, I assert. "How do you know?" he asks, now defensive. Well that's what most people assume is in a crack pipe, I proffer, hence the name "crack pipe."
"I don't know," he says, completely straight-faced. "I didn't think about it. . . . Who knows what the FBI put in there? I know this: They tried to kill me. That's for sure."
We are joined for church by a slew of younger women, many roughly half his age, in their Sunday finery. Barry gives off the whiff of a black Hugh Hefner: old enough to seem a fatherly elder that younger women like to mother-hen, lusty enough that you're never sure which of his female relations goes beyond platonic. There's Natalie Williams, his spokesperson, and her friend in from Los Angeles, who is a dead ringer for the actress Robin Givens. There's Chenille Spencer, Barry's sometime companion and personal assistant, and her nine-year-old-son Fats, who is Barry's godson. (Barry has five godsons, as he says it's important for the kids around his ward, often raised by single mothers, to have "positive male role models.")
Barry is often circumspect about who he has seen romantically. Though when I point out to him that he's entitled to see whoever he wants, he agrees: "That's right. I'm free, black, and 21." There is Kim Dickens, though, who Barry admits he "takes out" sometimes and who was kind enough to donate a kidney to Barry after his renal failure. She basically saved his life, but makes no great to-do about it. I ask Kim if she misses her kidney. "I do have separation anxiety," she says. "But I visit him enough. So the kidneys see each other."
There is also a CW network cameraman along for the morning, collecting b-reel for a two-part series on Barry. The star goes upstairs to get suited up, right down to his silver wraparound cufflinks. "A professor told me if you want to be a millionaire, look like a millionaire," explains Barry. We finally gather ourselves to go to church, about 45 minutes after the opening bell. Kim waves off our lateness. "Marion likes to get there to hear the Word," she says. "They'll still be praising the Lord, honey."
Before we go, Barry huddles everyone in the center of his cramped living room and instructs us to grab hands for prayer. I join in, but we decide I should fall out, as the praying white reporter kind of confuses the cameraman's visual. Barry lifts his voice to the heavens, which is still mumbly, so my tape doesn't pick up the particulars. But I am struck by two things while listening to him:
The man prays with the familiarity of someone who regularly talks to God.
Who prays in front of a cameraman and before they go to church?
We arrive in a blue Cadillac with a missing hubcap (a loaner since his 2000 BMW is in the shop). The ushers at the Temple of Praise in southeast show Barry a deference due a visiting dignitary, though it has been his home church for some years. The congregants are in the full throes of Holy Ghost power when we arrive. The percussion from both the band and all the stomping comes up through the floor, rattling the soles of your shoes. Rookies would do well to wear a mouthguard, as they might catch a stray elbow, as I did, from rapturous church ladies performing the Pentecostal shake. At one point during a song, I watch a beefy elder onstage square his shoulders, tuck his head, and dash down the steps like a fullback hitting a hole, then into a breakaway open-field sprint around the sanctuary. Natalie asks if I'm okay. "Sure," I tell her, "this is just like my church."
My vantage point is excellent, since even though we arrived an hour late, the front pew is cleared out for Barry and his entourage. He has a standing reservation whenever he wants it. Bishop Glen Staples, a silky prosperity-gospeler, welcomes "Our dear mayor-for-life. We are thankful that he is here." Staples alludes to Barry's recent troubles, saying, "I love him because he's taught me how to get back up."
Staples finds the old rhetorical rhythms, as congregants whoop on the rests. "You got to learn how to get up. [Whoop.] Because everybody in this life, if you are alive and breathing, that is the one thing you can be sure of, making mistakes. [Whoop.] When you fall down 'cause of mistakes, get back up, dust yo'self off, and start over again. [Whoop.]" Staples instructs us to grab one person and tell them "I know you're going to make it!" The audience obliges, and whoops some more, as Barry is called to the stage over pumping, orgasmic organ.
"Praise the Lord!" Barry says. "Hallelujah!" He is echoed by the audience. "Whenever you see me, I'm going to praise the Lord, because with all that I've been through. [Whoop.] You understand." The thought doesn't need to be finished. They understand.
Barry says the media have tried to demonize him, "But y'all know how much I care. [Whoop.] There are a lot of people who don't like what I do. [Whoop.] Lookin' out for black people. [Whoop.] Lookin' out for black people. [Whoop.] Standin' up for black people. [Whoop.] They don't like it, and so I'm constantly attacked. But because of God's mercy and grace and power. [Whoop. Whoop. Whoop.]"
Again, he doesn't need to finish. The crowd is all about extending however much forgiveness he needs, even if he doesn't feel he needs any, and it was never asked for. "So I want to thank this congregation and the bishop for your prayers," Barry continues. "Thank you Temple of Praise. You love me, and I love you!"
Bishop Staples retakes the pulpit and whips the crowd into a frenzy with a hell-for-leather sing-songy sermon that is half T.D. Jakes, half Otis Redding. Only amateurs wait for the altar call. Most just come up front during the sermon, wailing and whooping and feeling the electric surge of Holy Ghost power hitting in jolts like the Staples-punctuating organ.
Staples laces the sermon with plenty of Barry references. But the main subject is Paul and his thorn-of-the-flesh, which God wouldn't remove. Instead, Staples says, God told Paul, " 'I'm gonna leave it right there, to keep you humble.' . . . You better believe that everybody in here got a thorn in yo' flesh. . . . But God said the prescription that I'm gonna give you for your malady of being a human being is called grace."
Barry is by now transported himself. He gets up and joins the mosh pit of ululators, swinging his arms like a child readying himself for the standing broad-jump at a school track meet. When asked afterward what part of the sermon spoke to him most, he says, "All of it," then starts throwing some Bible himself. "It says, 'Greater is He that is in us than he that is in the world,' " Barry says, adding his own interpretation: "Greater than devils, and evil-doers, and haters . . . Barry critics."
It's a tad ironic that while all but Emperor-for-Life in Ward 8, Barry didn't make his bones as mayor by standing up for "the last, the least, and the lost," as he has spent the post-Vista half of his career rebranding himself in these parts. While his signature summer-jobs program for youth insured that you can swing a cat in a local black neighborhood and hit five adults for whom Barry provided their first gig, his primary accomplishment was riding '80s-era real-estate-boom market forces.
Barry threw the city open to development the likes of which D.C. hadn't seen before. He was so proactive that old staffers tell how, early in his mayoral tenure, he used to have weekly brainstorming brown-bag lunches with architects and developers and would fast-track formerly glacial construction-approval processes with Post-it notes saying "Good idea, do it!" When he assumed office in 1979, whole quadrants of the city were ghost towns, and there were streets untouched since they were torched in the '68 riots.
During Barry's first term, 70 new buildings were either started or completed, and millions of new square feet of downtown office space were added. Even Republicans, after rolling through their mental rolodex of Chris Rock crack-smoking jokes or using Barry as a handy excuse to deny D.C. statehood, sometimes recall the '80s-era Barry with fondness. Even if there were accusations of untoward cronyism, he was a mayor you could do business with. "The one thing Barry fundamentally understood is that nobody--not the city, not the private sector--profits off a weed-strewn lot. In that way, he was a supply-sider," says one.
In other ways, though, he was a raging redistributionist. "Some call it socialistic, some call it democratic," Barry tells me. "I don't go by labels, they don't mean s-- to me." Figuring if the Poles and Italians could feather nests in Chicago and the Irish could dominate Boston, Barry ruthlessly insisted that all of his departments meet minority set-aside contracting quotas, up to 30 percent. At the same time, his knack for creating patronage jobs would've left Huey Long gaping in awe. At one point in the late '80s, the city didn't even know how many employees it had on its own payroll (an independent commission estimated there was one city worker for every 13 residents). By the end of Barry's third term, shortly before the Vista bust, the size of the municipal payroll had swelled to 52,000-- that's 14,000 more taxpayer-funded jobs than Los Angeles, a city five times the size of D.C.
Barry, always intent on buffing the scratches out of his legacy, tells me that he didn't just foster a black middle class in D.C., but also in neighboring Prince George's County. He's more right than he'd like to be. For much of the newly created black wealth fled the city, as they had a much better chance of enjoying their spoils without getting shot in the suburbs.
Barry's early electoral success was also partly attributable to lily-white affluent do-goodniks, enamored by the exotic former black radical taking on the establishment. He was championed by the Washington Post, which endorsed him in three out of his four runs for mayor, though the Post's editors later publicly wished they could rescind the last one. But his consistent racial polarization and claims of martyrdom when running into various ethical and personal lapses eventually cost him that goodwill.
In the late '80s, most of the poor black wards became drug-ravaged killing fields, and it was their voters that saved Barry's hide in subsequent elections. (Barry's talents as a political Machiavelli are grossly underrated--he's only lost one election ever, for an at-large council seat right after his trial. "I had to get that out of my system," he jokes. "Even then, I got 50,000 votes.") Some of these circumstances were far beyond Barry's control. But then, some of them weren't. As Harry Jaffe and Tom Sherwood detailed in their 1994 book Dream City, D.C. became an inefficient, pothole-ridden sinkhole, and even Barry himself admits that he'd lost all energy by the third term (1987-91). "I was getting tireder and tireder," he tells me, "because the job was so damn hard."
Most of the talent that had graced his first administration had left through attrition and indictment. The schools ranked as some of the worst in the nation. The hobbled police force was literally outgunned by homegrown drug-dealers and their imported Jamaican rivals. Barry was distracted, disconnected, and partying like he was getting paid by the gram of whatever he ingested. As Dream City suggested, some of his more suspicious hospital visits for things like "hiatal hernia" were likely cocaine-related.
Things grew so bleak, that the liberal Washington Monthly even ran a piece in 1989 that jeopardized Detroit's civic pride, with a detailed house-of-horrors portrait entitled "The Worst City Government in America--Washington D.C."
But here at the Temple of Praise, people don't break out the scales and stack Barry's good deeds versus his bad ones. His popularity here transcends such minutiae. Supporting him, in spite of his struggles--even because of them--is almost a symbolic sacrament. Plus, he does something few other politicians in the District, even the city's later black mayors, do: He shows up.
Over the course of my time with him, he shows up to senior centers, where he gives 20 bucks to the oldest doll in attendance, which often takes some sorting out, what with senility. He shows up to the planning of the Labor Day picnic that he throws out of his own budget, overseeing details down to the hot dogs and what Go-Go bands are hired. The fact that he regularly gets raked over the coals by newspapers--which Barry tells me Ward 8ers largely don't read--for tax evasion and traffic arrests and addiction issues and many of the pathologies that plague their community in such numbers might help him rather than hurt him.
One morning, Barry hauls me to a "Ward 8 Leadership Council" breakfast at the gleaming, new IHOP--considered a Ward 8 development triumph, which Barry helped champion. I find out that there isn't technically a "Ward 8 Leadership Council." Barry has merely assembled 17 people in a back room--everyone from activists to ministers to community leaders to a Giant store manager (the first grocery chain to do business in the ward in a decade). There's even a white real estate developer named Jeff Epperson, who has a Texan accent, used to work for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and speaks from experience that "politicians and perfect behavior should never be mentioned in the same sentence."
They tell me of Barry's tireless devotion to the ward, of how "he remembers people that don't have no title, no nothing," of how after 40 years of public life he will "stand at the gate" for Ward 8 "and knows every crook and cranny in city hall, he knows exactly where the money is at, where the dead bodies are," and can therefore put people with resources.
They tell me how the ward is finally moving in the right direction (Epperson's company is investing there), even if Bishop C. Matthew Hudson of Matthews Memorial Baptist says he's preaching two funerals that week--one for a gunned-down 18-year-old, the other for a 76-year-old man beaten by a group of teenagers on Malcolm X Boulevard. (One afternoon, when tracking home with Barry, we get out of the car to see a dozen squad cars at the Congress Heights Metro Station, as a young man in a wife-beater is being cuffed and put into one of them, while the woman he just assaulted, and who dropped her baby in the melee, lies crying on the ground. "In Ward 8," Barry tells me, "if it ain't one thing, it's another. But it's always something.")
The IHOP convocation is a Barry-engineered Potemkin exhibit, to be sure. But the intensity of their possessiveness is no put-up job, and is similar to what I encounter all over the ward. When I interview Barry standing on Alabama Avenue, a random car pulls up and a woman yells out the window, "Are they pickin' on you again?" The IHOP amen corner pisses blood over the way their man has been pilloried for behavior that's conveniently forgotten when it comes to the likes of Bill Clinton or Ted Kennedy.
As James Coates, senior minister of Bethlehem Baptist Church, says, "He understands our path--stony the road we trod. So when someone attacks Mr. Barry, they attack all of us." I push back, and ask the ministers and others what it would take for Barry to lose their support. Would they still support him if he killed somebody? "Yes I would," says Coates without blinking, then breaks into laughter. The ministers then give biblical murder precedents--Moses killed, David killed Bathsheba's husband, etc. "I'm coming to your church next week," says Epperson.
When I visit Barry's constituency office one day in the ward, conveniently located a few floors above the local welfare office, the intensity of this devotion is put quite explicitly to me by a woman who mans Barry's phones and who's been volunteering for him for years. She wears a matching African-print gown and head-wrap, and she is called "Mother Boone." She says she came to D.C. decades ago, when her husband was laid up overseas in a hospital after getting injured in the war--she doesn't remember which war.
"It started with a 'K,' " she says, her spotty memory failing her.
"Korea?" I ask.
"Maybe," she says.
After arriving from St. Louis, she lived in her car with her baby. "The front seat was my living room, the back was my bedroom." Who gave her shoes and milk for her baby? "Mr. Barry!" Boone says. Who found her a place to live? "Mr. Barry!" When she was shot in the stomach after getting carjacked, she got a special room at the hospital with extra flowers and nightgowns and the works. "Guess who was there with me," Mother Boone intones, practically grabbing my lapels. "Gawwwd, and Jesus, and MR. BARRY!"
A few minutes later, I ask Barry if she in fact got shot when she was carjacked. He shrugs, and says, "I don't know." Mother Boone "goes in and out," a staffer explains. In some parts of the city, Barry can't buy credit for things he's legitimately done. In Ward 8, he gets credit even for the things he hasn't.
After church, Barry is famished. If you participate in a Temple of Praise service, your cardio requirement is fulfilled for the day. Barry insists on taking me and the Barry Angels to the pricey Old Ebbitt Grill downtown, since the only sit-down restaurants in Ward 8 are the IHOP and a former topless bar, the Players Lounge, where Barry likes to order the liver and onions and occasionally takes the stage to sing his theme song, T-Bone Walker's "Stormy Monday."
Before we go, however, we have to deposit "what little money I have" in his account so his debit card can cover it. The Caddy rolls up to a Safeway grocery store in neighboring Ward 7, which contains a SunTrust bank counter that sits behind bullet-proof glass. Barry and I go in, and he spies the long line. "Oh my God, I gotta cut that," he says. So he heads to the front of the line and negotiates with a woman, telling her he's with a reporter, and he's in a hurry (after cutting, he'll later work every person in the line, as he's a perpetual campaigner).
While I wait behind him, a woman with a neck tattoo and bandanna-covered head approaches, assuming I'm a Barry staffer. Her name is Vicki Mitchell, and she's on the phone with her son, Lejeevan Toudle, who's currently in lock-up for armed robbery. Telling her son Mayor Barry just walked in, she tells me, "My son said to tell you D.C. jail ain't got no air. You wanna speak to him?"
I grab the phone, and Lejeevan proceeds to tell me how it's 110 degrees in his cell. Not only that, "the canteen is messed up, they don't give us what we ordered." Spying my notebook, his mother adds, "put that on the list." I ask Lejeevan if he wants to speak with the mayor, who's technically a City Councilman. He does. I hand the phone to Barry. "Yeah, what's happenin'?" Barry says, hearing his complaints. "Alright," says Barry. "I can deal with that tomorrow, can't deal with that today." Barry gives me Lejee-van's phone number to write down, but is a digit short. No matter. He never asks me for it anyway.
Back in the car outside the Safeway, a booty-shaking lass walks by, giving Barry the eye. Kim, the kidney donor, offers play-by-play from the backseat: "We call it grinnin' and skinnin'."
"Y'all leave her alone, now," says Barry, adding, "I'm glad I'm in the car."
"We glad you are too," says Kim, "or you'd be out there another 15 minutes."
"God gave me the gift of being gregarious," Barry explains. "I'm a touchy-feely kind of person." I offer that that's gotten him in a spot of trouble in the past. "A little bit," says Kim, caustically. "Everybody has some trouble sometimes," Barry assents. Another Safeway patron extends well wishes through the car window. "I don't care what nobody says. You my man!" he says. "I can't come in here," Barry says to me. "If I were to shop, I wouldn't be out of here till three hours later."
Arriving at Old Ebbitt, we are seated in a side-room in the front of the restaurant ("the slave quarters" one of the girls calls it). Barry orders his favorite, the trout parmesan, and shows a sign of aging, as he occasionally does, when asking the waiter where his spinach and mashed potatoes are--they're under his fish.
I order a post-church bourbon, and Barry joins me by ordering a white zinfandel, having sworn off the cognac--along with the cocaine, he insists--that used to cause him so many problems. If he bothers ordering any, he stops at one glass of wine during the many meals we have together. Still, I'm pretty sure that's not in the program of the AA meetings he's attended for years. Isn't even one glass of wine bad for his sobriety?
"No, it's bad for my kidney," he says, telling me everybody deals with addiction differently. "I do it my way," he says. "Oh no," says his spokeswoman, Natalie, sitting beside him.
I hadn't visited Barry to put him on the rack. But his responses to addiction issues, along with a host of his other troubles, practically dictate that any self-respecting reporter play prosecuting attorney. Barry is gentlemanly, never malicious, but he's also eternally argumentative. Anything you preface with "I read in the City Paper or Washington Post" will immediately elicit an objection. So that if, for instance, you told him you'd read that he loved his mother, he'd have to insist he didn't.
It's understandable, perhaps, that a man who is constantly under attack tends toward the defensive. But Barry frequently loses track of his own narrative, contradicts his former public utterances, and shows a less-than-straightforward hold on the truth. Over the entirety of our time together, we incessantly play cat-and-mouse. At various times, he insists he never really had an alcohol or serious drug problem--that his post-Vista trip to Hazelden was a "tactical move" for the upcoming trial. Then later he'll admit that alcohol is his only real addiction.
When I ask Barry how a 73-year-old man can still find so much trouble, he says, "I don't get into trouble. People get me in trouble." But he does have a knack for getting into more trouble even when he's seemingly in more trouble than he could already be in. For instance, when already in prison, he was transferred to another facility after witnesses reported seeing him receive oral gratification from a female admirer in the visitation room. (He denies it to this day.) And after failing to pay his taxes for roughly seven years, repeatedly getting hauled before judges for his negligence, and having his pay garnished for roughly $3,050 per month (he says it was due to "procrastination"), Barry was put on probation by a judge and subsequently failed a drug test in 2006. Barry insists it was an unfortunate relapse. As with most of his problems, "a woman was involved," he admits.
Yet he swears that despite persistent rumors and even public declarations by his friends calling for him to take his sobriety more seriously, he did not use drugs from the time of his 1990 arrest until the 2006 relapse. When I bring up a 2002 incident, when police found a $5 rock in his car and claimed Barry had white powder on his face (they didn't charge him, saying they were trace amounts), Barry insists it was a frame-up. "It's really not consistent," he says. "If I'm smoking crack, I don't have powder on my face." He decided not to run for City Council afterwards, and his fourth wife left him two weeks later, but he insists none of this was related.
I mention to Barry that his real addiction seems to be women. And in fact, in the early '90s, he confessed to sex addiction. "I never said that," he insists. Yes he did, I inform him. I had just read the clip the night before. He said it on an episode of Sally Jessy Raphael. "No, that's bulls--," he says. "We made a tactical mistake. We were trying to get our story out about what happened at the Vista, and she put me on with a sexually addicted person. We corrected that." I recheck the Washington Post clip later. Headline: "Marion Barry, Airing His Vices; On Sally Jessy Raphael, the Ex-Mayor Tells of Sex Addiction."
So naturally defensive is Barry that at one point, when driving around Ward 8, I ask him what pisses him off most about what he sees. "Some things don't piss me off, some things make me angry."
That's the same thing, I tell him. Natalie laughs, and shakes her head, as though I'm seeing what she's up against.
"Nah, nah, there's a difference," he says.
"You argue about everything!" I tell him.
"I have to!"
Barry feels like he's been in a fight his entire life. Born to Mississippi sharecroppers (his mother used to carry him around in a cotton sack in the fields), she split for Memphis with Barry and his sisters when he was eight, leaving his father behind. Barry never saw him again. "I used to be ashamed of that," says Barry. "So in my bio, I used to say he died. 'Cause I was ashamed that I didn't have a natural father."
Growing up, he says, "I was very insecure. Didn't like my name. It was a lady's name. Didn't like my looks. Didn't like anything about myself." Kids would tease him about his name, and "I'd pop 'em in the mouth, damn right I would. Then I got to the point where I said what the hell. That's what God gave me. That's how I was born. This is how I look. To hell with them. Though I wasn't cussin' back then."
Sure, Barry has taken a beating over the years. "But I'm not supposed to be here," he tells me. When he was in high school, he'd never even heard of college, didn't know what it was. "In fact," he says, "my sixth-grade teacher told me, 'Marion Barry, you not gonna be anything. You're not gonna be anywhere.' I went home and cried to my mother. She said, 'Now don't listen to that stuff. You can do anything you want to do.' Here's a woman with a fourth-grade education talkin' about what I could do."
"I felt depressed for a couple days, then I said I'm not gonna buy that in my own mind." He became an achiever. He consistently made the honor roll. He was an Eagle Scout. He recited poems in church. He went to college, and stopped one year short of getting his doctorate in chemistry, quitting to join the civil rights movement. "In chemistry, there's order," he says wistfully. "In politics, there's disorder. The rules change just about every other day."
I mention to Barry that for all his biblical invocations, the Bible teaches us to be humble, a trait he doesn't often display. "But there's a time to be humble, and a time not to be humble."
"When's the time not to be?" I ask.
"In front of your enemies," he says. "Because if they're trying to break your spirit, even if your spirit is broken, you can't let them know it. . . . God gave me a strong spirit. People expect me to come in with my head down and out. Not me. I'm not doing it. I hold my head up. High."
Barry's spirit is sung home to me by longtime Barry-watcher and critic Mark Plotkin, a political analyst for WTOP radio. In 1986, Plotkin unsuccessfully ran for City Council, and in the midst of his campaign, went to see Barry, who shared some advice. "I don't remember anything else he said," says Plotkin. "But the one thing that sticks in my mind 23 years later, which sums him up, is he told me, 'My whole life, people have told me what I can't do. And I'm not going to abide by that.' "
"I think that's what motivates him more than anything," says Plotkin. He remembers talking to Barry right before sentencing in the income tax case. "I said, 'How do you feel about this?' He said, 'Well, you never know how these things turn out.' He was majorly calm. I'd be a sweating wreck. He was literally flirting with the clerk who announced the verdict. Talk about chutzpah."
After lunch at the Old Ebbitt, the check comes. I offer to split it, but Barry waves me off and throws down his debit card. The waitress disappears, then returns apologetically, informing Barry that his card's been rejected. I throw my credit card instead, and Barry's spokesperson Natalie panics, saying she should pay so I won't write about it. I tell her I will anyway, so she might as well let it ride.
A symposium commences at the table on the journalistic pros and cons of what just happened. The only person who doesn't care in the least? Marion Barry. "It just shows I'm human," he says. "Millions of Americans go through this every day. Think they got the bank thing straight, don't have it straight. Come on. . . . We make mistakes. We have frailties." It turns out Barry has a big wad of bills in his pocket, which we notice when he tips the valet outside. "You could've paid for lunch," observes Natalie. "I had it," says Barry. "But whenever THE WEEKLY STANDARD offers to pay, I'm takin' it."
"Welcome to the family," Natalie says with a grimace.
A few days later, Barry wants to return the favor, taking me and Natalie to lunch at Acadiana, a New Orleans-style eatery where he'll have the fried catfish and watermelon salad. First, though, he has to go to a downtown SunTrust and see what's what with his card and his retirement check, which seems to be missing from direct deposit.
"Who do I see about a problem with my card?" he says, once in the bank. As Barry cools his heels, customers, both white and black, come up to make small talk and take cell-phone pictures. The branch manager, Yolette Olufemi, sits down with Barry and checks the damage. She looks a little sheepish about what she's discovered and gingerly informs him that Thrifty Car Rental has billed his card for $1,353.10, which has caused him to be overdrawn and to be assessed an additional penalty.
Barry mutters that the police impounded his car during the stalking-charge episode, and, though they didn't press charges, "The police had my car. For a week. Illegally." He must've forgotten to pay for the rental car he needed in the meantime. He tells her apologetically that he should have his paycheck soon, and can cover the shortfall. She sees me taking notes, and seems somewhat embarrassed for him, telling Barry she waited on him six years ago, and thanked him then, because he was responsible for her first summer job when she was a high school student. "Those lifetime experiences helped to put me where I am today. So I always say, 'Kudos Mr. Barry,' " she adds with somewhat strained cheer, offering to reduce his overdrawn penalty.
Marion Barry was, is, and will always be a ladies' man. We talk about women plenty. When I chat up one of his supporters, commenting on the fake gemstones glued to her eyelashes, Barry leans over my shoulder and says, "Don't hit on those women. That's my job."
One of the women he won't talk about much is Donna Watts-Brighthaupt, the central character in his current troubles. But when I ask him what the biggest regret of his life is, he has only one woman on his mind: "Effi."
He's referring to the late Effi Barry, his third wife and mother of his son, Christopher. Effi was an elegant former model with an aristocratic bearing, best known for sitting by Barry every day during the six-week Vista trial, hooking a rug in supportive silence, while a parade of witnesses detailed sex'n'drug specifics that would've caused any normal wife to have a stroke.
She stuck with Barry for a while longer, then left him before he went to prison. They remained close, however. And he says that in the years before she died of myeloid leukemia in 2007, they even talked about getting remarried. The depth of his affection for her was evidenced from what he said at her funeral at National Cathedral: "I was not late, this time, Effi. I was on time."
One afternoon, in Barry's City Council office, after a vigorous interrogation, he says, "Wanna go to lunch? I ain't got no money. Card's still messed up." Before we do, however, he walks over to a framed photo of him with a laughing Effi at a chamber of commerce dinner. "Come look at this over here. Look how fine she looks. Yeah, my God." I ask if he misses her. "Absolutely," he says. "I do. I miss her. For about the last ten years or so, I didn't dream. After my transplant, I started dreaming again. I dream in color. The toxins are out of my body. . . . Two or three nights ago, I dreamed about her."
I ask what he dreamed. "I don't want to get into that," Barry says, as he often does about subjects he brings up.
Later that day, she comes up again. Barry has insisted we visit Linda Greene, his "fine" former chief of staff and decades-long friend, at her beautiful restored Victorian at the foot of a national parkland hill in Anacostia, atop which sits Frederick Douglass's old house.
Inside Linda's living room, the television is on, showing the "beer summit" between Obama, Skip Gates, and the Cambridge cop who arrested him. Barry and I both agree the spectacle of Obama and Co. pretending they're just regular guys having a brew is preposterous. When I suggest it might be useful for him to have a beer summit with the police, he grunts: "They'd probably poison my beer."
Barry sinks back on his shoulders into Linda's luxurious couch, while eating pineapple and cheese slices from an hors d'oeuvres tray. She takes a seat on the arm of the couch beside him. They flirt, they reminisce, she fusses over his tie, telling him she doesn't like it much. They seem like an affectionate, old married couple. I ask if they've ever been romantic. They both insist not, though Linda says her ex-husband still asks her if they ever got it on.
Linda was one of Effi's best friends and was with her at the end, so she and Barry start trading off, giving me the blow-by-blow of Effi's last days. Barry had seen Effi shortly before, in what ended up being her deathbed in Annapolis. "Even then," he recalls, "She said, 'Marion, I'm getting tired. I'm getting tired.' I said 'You're not getting tired. It's gonna be alright. You're gonna make it through this. We've gone through worse than this.' "
Shortly thereafter, he left for Memphis to see his ailing mother. Linda called him while he was there and told him this was it. He knew he couldn't get back in time. "About ten minutes later," Barry says, "Linda called back again and said she's gone." His face pinches when he says this, his lip starts quivering. He shuts his eyes tight, and tears stream from them, which he quickly covers with his hand, so nobody can see.
He eventually lightens the mood, looking at Linda, "Linda complains about me sometimes. But Effi willed me to you. So I'm stuck."
Both Barry and Linda talk freely about how much he cared for Effi, which prompts me to ask how he could put her through what he did: the infidelity, the public humiliation. Linda covers for him: "He's not doing it out of disrespect, or less love for the person he's committed to at that time."
Barry takes this in, meditatively chewing on a pineapple slice. "I haven't thought about it much," he confesses. "First of all, I love people. Attractive women. They're all attractive to me if they're female." We laugh.
"No, really," he insists:
We're ready to leave Linda's. We go out to the car, and on the floor of the backseat is a Häagen-Dazs cup filled with melted butter-pecan ice-cream. Natalie had bought Barry a cone when she was driving us around D.C., as Barry showed me his mayoral-era development triumphs. But the cone started dripping all over his suit. I suggested throwing it out the window, but this is Barry's city. He adamantly refused. He might run afoul of the law every now and then, but he's not some kind of litterbug. So instead, he quickly ate it while letting the rest drip into the cup.
When he slides into the car at Linda's, he reaches down, drinks the melted ice cream, then hands the empty cup to Linda. "Oh thanks," she says. "Now I'm the trash-woman."
Several days later, I follow Barry to New York for the premiere of The Nine Lives of Marion Barry. He is in his glory, disembarking from a stretch limo with his Angels for a screening high atop the HBO building, which overlooks the yoganauts and ping-pong players of Bryant Park. He sings a few bars of the old gospel hymn "Victory is Mine" when he takes the microphone after the screening (I told Satan to get thee behind / Victory today is mine). He accepts well wishes from statuesque blondes, who are aroused at the sight of a young, militant Barry in a leopard-print dashiki. "You're a beautiful man, I just want to put that out there," says one.
At a reception buffet line, I run into Jim Vance, a tall, well-dressed, barrel-chested African-American news anchor from D.C.--half of the longest running anchor-team in Washington--who has known and covered Barry since the late '60s. Vance, too, was addicted to cocaine for seven years back in the '80s.
Around Barry, Vance is all hugs and smiles. But I ask him to give me his straight-up assessment of Barry. He raises his eyes to the ceiling, thinks a bit, then says, "There were so many of us who had so much hope for Marion. I don't know too many people that were more blessed or that had more skills than Marion had, nor too many people who were a bigger disappointment, quite frankly."
Vance's own addiction "snuck up on me":
After the screening, Barry and the Angels and I load into the limo and head uptown for chicken 'n' waffles, fried catfish, and shrimp étouffée. It's supposed to be the last of our time together, but he insists on breakfast the next morning, to clear a few things up. Just as he'll do when he calls me a few days later, unbidden, at home.
The specifics of what he says turn out not to be that important. But it feels as though he is addressing some advice I'd given him when catching him at the screening. Earlier that afternoon, from my hotel, I'd watched him tussle with an MSNBC anchor while promoting the film, Barry insisting yet again that he'd done nothing wrong at the Vista. I suggested to him that if he didn't insult people's intelligence regarding the things they already know about him, he might get a fairer hearing regarding the things they don't know.
So, for instance, at breakfast the following morning, Barry offers, "When I told you about recreational use, I don't want you to think I'm trying to minimize it. It was a serious problem, yeah. But the good news is, look at me now!" Of course, such rare moments of honest disclosure come between hours and hours of amnesia, revisionism, suspect self-justification, air-brushing, and legacy-buffing.
But that's okay. It felt, over the time I was with him, that there were several moments where Marion Barry was trying to tell me something. Maybe even the truth. If he can't quite always get there, it's still a commendable effort. After all, he hasn't had much practice.
Matt Labash is a senior writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.