National Opinions

Colbert King: Marion Barry's intricate path through D.C. history

By Colbert I. King

The Washington Post

Marion Barry received his final call.

In a recent column, I described the four-term mayor as one of Washington's most enduring political war horses. Noting the release of his book "Mayor for Life: The Incredible Story of Marion Barry, Jr.," I observed that the 78-year-old Barry, instead of thinking about hanging it up, was telling stories about himself. "These writings are preparation for the next chapter. There's simply no stopping war horses until the good Lord calls them home."

It came at 1:46 a.m. on Nov. 23, 2014.

And with him went an era the likes of which we may never see again. Some will say, "Thank God." Others, many others, are mourning his passing. But whichever way you come down, admit it: Barry's life represents a unique and unforgettable period in the city's history. How could it not?

Marion Barry was a fixed point from which the development of the District as a source of black political empowerment can be traced. He started and starred in it. His was a political melodrama that depicted a city striving for self-determination in a way that the nation could not ignore. Because Barry did it his way.

The political skirmishes, challenges to Capitol Hill's colonial customs and shattering of old D.C. government hiring traditions were part of the Barry way. He brought color, literally and figuratively, to the upper reaches of city government. And he broke a lot of china along the way.

Barry, while on the path, also answered a lot of calls, including some that many others ignored out of fear and cowardice.

On the national front, the struggle for civil rights wasn't settled when Barry entered the fray. It could have gone either way because the other side had the police powers and the weight of the state. But in he went.

Locally, he was among the first wave of elected officials to take office in the newly minted home-rule government — an uncertain time controlled by congressional skeptics not easily moved to view city independence with sympathy. But in he went.

He responded to a call, most likely heard initially by himself alone, to seek the reins of mayoral power. But calls for him to claim the mayor's office came three more times from citizens, especially those who believed that Barry knew, respected and spoke for them, and in a language that the city's power brokers otherwise would not have heard.

He also responded to personal calls — longings, appetites, ambitions and passions — that led him into situations quite painful to watch. And for which he paid a price, over and over.

For more than 24 years, I have written dozens of editorials and columns about Barry, and I've known him even longer. Though I didn't write any of the several Post endorsements of Barry for mayor in 1978 — and I've never found anyone who will own up to having done so — it happened, and probably helped get him elected.

No need to explore my differences with Barry over fiscal policies and management, city stewardship and handling race relations. That's the value of Post archives.

But I got to gauge the measure of the man.

Marion Barry mastered conditions that would bring down the average person. He delivered blows and took many, too. But he didn't remain stuck with his problems. He could move on and find an upside to everything.

To recall a story I told in a column once before: During his last term as mayor, and with a financial control board and Congress blocking him at every turn, Barry and I had lunch, at his invitation, at Georgia Brown's.

For nearly two hours he conducted a tour d'horizon of his life and times as mayor — taking a few shots at The Post's editorial page for our treatment of his administration — all the while basking in the adoring gaze of restaurant customers. There was nothing like observing Barry in a crowd.

Over rice with broiled chicken livers in gravy (his) and a hearty serving of cassoulet (mine), Barry acknowledged that he had become a lightning rod for congressional criticism and that his reelection could lead to a further squeezing of the city's limited form of home rule. He said he didn't want to serve under those conditions and signaled that he would not run if his return to office would hurt the city. He didn't.

But Barry was irrevocably in love with the job of being mayor.

As we approached the mayor's Lincoln Town Car and security team at curbside, I noted his shiny new ride. Smiling, Barry reared back a little, tilted his head in a manner reminiscent of preachers I have known, and said, "You know how it is, the city likes to take care of its mayor, heh, heh, heh."

Then he was gone. Guess who picked up the tab?

But that's no complaint. Marion Barry bore some heavy costs, too. He paid for standing against notorious congressional antagonism toward D.C. self-determination. He bore the misery of the slurs, unfair judgments and taunts against a city largely in African American hands. He bore the weight of friends who let him down, and he bore himself. There was nothing else like him on our political stage.

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