A Rake's Progress
Marion Barry bares (almost) all.
Sep 7, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 47 • By MATT LABASH
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.