By: Barb in DC
Later this week, DC will experience a three-day funeral extravaganza the likes of which haven’t been seen since JFK died. While I won’t begrudge anyone his or her right or opportunity to participate in any of the activities surrounding the passing of Marion Barry, I won’t be among them.
My Bubba gave me explicit instructions not to post anything on the internet which would force us to change our locks or phone number; so, I’m doing my best to be judicious here.
A great deal of commentary on the death of Barry has been along the lines of, “He gave voice to the voiceless;” and, “He empowered the black population of DC.” I have my doubts about the ultimate value of the first statement–since it was all talk and no action–and dissent on the second. Lyndon Johnson and the Home Rule Charter empowered the majority population of DC–not Marion Barry.
Then there is this: “He changed who benefited from corruption.” Why, yes he did. He certainly “empowered” quite number of people to indulge in illegalities concerning public monies and there has been quite a queue either entering prison or are about to. Some of the more recently-discovered malfeasance was perpetrated the son of his first campaign manager and the son of a long-time Barry supporter and Council member. Second-generation corruption! Gee, thanks.
Then, of course, there is the on-going investigation into the previous Mayoral campaign, where quite a few of the soon-to-be former Mayor’s campaign staffers and donors have made deals with the DA and are singing to lessen their time in the pokey. Mayor Gray (the beneficiary of Barry’s polarization) hasn’t been indicted himself, yet, but give it time. At least the in-coming Mayor is a protege of Adrian Fenty and not Marion Barry.
Charlie Pierce over at Esquire.com in his Politics Blog has a running gag that Eric Cantor stole John Boehner’s balls back in 2010 and put them in a Mason jar which he then hid. He left Congress this year–at the request of his constituents, as Charlie so eloquently put it–without revealing the location of said jar. Marion Barry went Cantor a whole lot better more than 30 years ago. After beating Mayor Washington and the first Council Chairman in a very close 3-way Democratic Mayoral primary in 1978 (the year I got involved in local politics) he proceeded to steal the balls of every possible rival and throw them all into the Potomac River before any of them knew what was happening. I still don’t know how he got away with the humiliating, emasculating treatment of those worthies. And; he made sure that there would be no opportunity for anyone else to form a power base. Machiavelli would have approved.
What I find most unforgivable about the reign of Marion Barry was the way he polarized the city politically. He won (barely) that Democratic primary in 1978 with the help of the white population. Once in office, he demonized it to a large extent, refusing to acknowledge that although the white citizens were much wealthier and far better educated, percentage-wise, than the black citizens, we were all largely attuned in our political ideology. The vast majority of the people of this city were and are Liberal, Progressive Democrats and that crosses every ethnic and economic line imaginable. Those who are more Conservative or (shudder) Republican live in the suburbs. Seriously, the DC Republican Party holds its meetings in somebody’s living room.
Still, there were forces that were out of Barry’s sphere of influence that have allowed this city to recover, finally, from the riots of 1968. In spite of everything, young people with their newly-minted degrees have been flocking here and changing the face of the business community. They are bringing in their energy, resources, and imaginations. We have seen the first distillery open within the city limits in 100 years. (If you haven’t tried Green Hat Gin, you should. It’s something special.) Plus, there are three new breweries where once there were none. The wags who started DC Brau have given their beers names like “The Corruption” and “The Citizen.” There are many new restaurants on U Street, which used to be known as “The Black Broadway” during segregation. Some of them pay tribute to the past like “Busboys and Poets” which is a reference to Langston Hughes. “Eatonville” is a new restaurant named after Zora Neale Hurston’s hometown. And, when Barack Obama was elected in 2008, there was a spontaneous spilling out into every street across the city in joyous celebration.
Could a more enlightened leadership have sped this recovery faster? That’s something we will never know. I’m just happy that I can walk to the new Trader Joe’s on 14th Street and marvel at all the changes that have taken place in recent years. If Barry’s supporters insist on giving him all the credit for it, I won’t even bother arguing with them. I know better. Besides, after Barry’s final term in office–where he was stripped of most of his authority by the Control Board Congress put in charge to prevent the city from going bankrupt–we had 12 years of very enlightened leadership from Anthony Williams and Adrian Fenty.
R.I.P. Marion Barry