The news broke hard in my house this morning that Marion Barry, Washington D.C.’s former Mayor for Life, was dead at the age of 78. Of the profile subjects featured in my 2010 collection, Fly Fishing With Darth Vader, he’s the third I’ve had to eulogize in the last few years. (The other two being James Traficant and Christopher Hitchens, prompting my melancholy-stricken-yet-pragmatic wife to say, “You’ve really got to start writing about more 25-year-olds.”)
I would, if they made them a third as interesting as Marion Shepilov Barry Jr. The unspoken idea, when I approached him in 2009, after a brush with the law for stalking his girlfriend, and after he was well past his political prime, was that I’d let him know when he was lying to me—which was often—and we'd proceed from there. Instead, we’d try to extract something real, even if his lies themselves were part of the realness. This dynamic seemed to liberate Barry, and so, even in his revisionism and self-justification, he ended up revealing a lot of truth.
For starters, within ten minutes of my meeting him, he showed me his nipples (in order to display an old gunshot wound resulting from when Muslim terrorists seized the District Building in the 70s, and he caught a bullet in the chest). I was encouraged. In the profiler’s handbook, it clearly states that when a man insists you get eyeball-to-areola with him, there lies a man you can do business with. From there, we talked about Barry’s prostate problems and the portable urinal he kept under the bed, his missing kidney, his serial womanizing (“God gave me the gift of being gregarious, I’m a touchy feely kind of person,” he said), his chemical dependency, his financial ineptitude (his debit card was rejected when he tried to buy me lunch), the sadness over his third wife Effi’s death (he cried, hard), his stubbornness and his refusal to acknowledge fault, which was both his greatest political asset and liability.
But all that said, that’s not how I like to remember him. My favorite Marion Barry moment came well after our piece was completed, and it had been included in the collection, as a last-minute addition. He came to my book party. Though, since he always operated on what was known as Barry Time (his press girl once told me to meet him for church at 11:30, though church started at 11), he showed up a good hour-and-a-half late. The party was held at my old colleague Tucker Carlson’s house. As friends and former subjects got up to tell sweet little lies about me, as is custom when somebody puts you on the spot to say something nice about them, the crowd grew restless, banging on their glasses for a speech. Since I find just about any activity more desirable than public speaking—jumping out of an airplane, enduring a colonoscopy, reading the fundraising emails of Debbie Wasserman Schultz—I politely slurred at them to return to their loved ones and drinks, there would be no speech from me.
But Jonah Goldberg, who was standing five feet in front of me and clamoring most loudly, waved me off, saying, “Not you, him!” He pointed to Marion Barry, who had materialized out of the ether, after kissing my mother and sister (platonically, I think). Barry commanded the stage as if we’d all been assembled for him all along. He complained about how confusing it was to find the place in the city he’d presided over for four terms. He made some cracks about me “being nosy.” He had the crowd—mostly conservative-leaning white people who’ve probably pilloried him hundreds of times both privately and in public—eating out of his hand like he was feeding them bacon-wrapped catnip.
From there, he adjourned to Tucker’s kitchen, where he received well-wishers, kissed a long line of women (he was always kissing women), and proceeded to sign a huge stack of my books, as if he’d written them. I didn’t begrudge him this. Not only did it liberate me to head to the bar. But in a way, he had written it. For it was men like him that the book depended on—those who are not quite in control of their own appetites, who live a little bit larger, so we don’t have to.