Far be it for me to point this out, but I could write 10,000 words on Marion Barry and merely scratch the surface of his bizarrely significant impact not only on Washingtonian politics, but on American politics. Forget about the sinister misdeeds of graft machines dating back before William M. “Boss” Tweed made New York his own private piggy bank. Wipe away the image of former San Diego Mayor Bob Filner’s sneering his way through a sexual harassment scandal that ultimately brought him down. Ignore the lurid details from former mayor and current convict Kwame Kilpatrick’s years-long Detroit house party. Don’t bother calling ex-New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin off the school bus. Throw out even the best efforts of North America’s current heavyweight (and I do mean “heavyweight”) champion of municipal merriment, Toronto’s soon-to-be-ex mayor Rob Ford.
As many people have pointed out in the hours since he pulled his final ace of spades, there was no one quite like Barry. However, there was no one quite like Tweed either. What Barry really represented were the final touches on the brick wall Americans have built around African-Americans, specifically African-American politicians. After four decades as city councilman, mayor, inmate, mayor and then city councilman again, Barry took a city on the edge and completely missed out as it plunged into nearly unmatchable depths of crime, drugs and fear. While Washington, D.C. turned into an absolute hellhole, Barry developed a crippling drug habit. As single motherhood became the most common family situation in his city, Barry shamelessly chased women to the point of an arrest for stalking a paramour. And while Washington’s unemployment rate rose from “sad” to “Detroit,” Barry so abused his power over the city payroll that he was ultimately stripped of almost all direct authority outside Parks and Recreation.
Prison not only didn’t reform the man, it gave him a sense of entitlement. He returned to the mayor’s office after a stretch in the corrections system and so blatantly mismanaged city finances that President Bill Clinton and the U.S. Senate stepped in. More womanizing, fiscal skullduggery and drug- and booze-related arrests followed, but dented neither his local popularity nor his self-awareness. Barry won a City Council seat by a landslide and then resumed his personal war on decency, culminating in his fellow D.C. councilmen stripping him of nearly everything but the nameplate on his office door. In 2012, not long after he resoundingly won another term on City Council, Barry warned against an increasing Asian presence in his council district, the infamously depressed 8th Ward: “We’ve got to do something about these Asians coming in, opening up businesses, those dirty shops. They ought to go, I’ll just say that right now, you know.”
The man was a walking monument to himself. The sobriquet “Mayor for Life,” which wasn’t quite as complimentary as he evidently thought, became his calling card. He lied. He cheated. He gamed the system. He abused the public trust in ways that would make even former President Clinton blush. While I wish no ill upon his family and friends, the idea that Barry’s death is a tragedy beyond their circle is somewhat embarrassing. Sure, a man died; and people will mourn him. But he was no saint. In fact, Barry was a seemingly proud sinner. Yet upon his death, adulation poured in from across the country, if not the world. President Barack Obama issued a statement honoring Barry’s tenure, as did disgraced Attorney General Eric Holder. Meanwhile, those who dared show the temerity to question the sudden whitewashing of Barry’s considerable yellow sheet were accused of racism in much the same specious way that critics of Obama, his repellent crony the “Rev.” Al Sharpton, Holder and nearly every other black political figure are regularly smeared.
If there’s one lesson America ought to take from the late “Mayor for Life,” it’s a reminder that “powerful” and “effective” are no more synonymous than “famous” and “infamous.” Men and women like Senator Tim Scott, Secretary Condoleezza Rice and surgeon Dr. Ben Carson are routinely reviled for their lack of “authenticity.” Scott is barely known, despite being the senior member of a very small group of African-Americans in the Senate. Rice has been subjected to virtually stunning displays of racism, including cartoons by nationally syndicated trolls like Ted Rall and Jeff Danziger, which would have earned roars of disapproval had they been directed at someone like Barry. And Carson, one of the premier neurosurgeons on the planet, has been called an “Uncle Tom” more often than one might think possible.
If there’s an overt racism in unfairly assigning blame to black politicians because they’re black, then there’s also a slightly more subtle racism in shielding them from deserved criticism for the same reason. There is no shortage of prominent African-Americans who ought to be considered role models for everyone, regardless of skin color. Dr. Neil Degrasse Tyson is one of the foremost scientific minds on Earth. Kenneth Chenault worked his way from Penn State University to become CEO of American Express. Robert Johnson worked tirelessly to earn his way into becoming the first African-American billionaire. Ask anyone in D.C.’s 8th Ward whom they admire more, and I bet Barry’s name comes up well before any of them.
And there’s something else: Just hours after the paparazzi site TMZ touched off a firestorm with a somewhat artless, but entirely reasonable, headline about Barry’s demise: “Crack Mayor Dead,” another former mayor of an American city met his maker. H. Foster Pettit, who served as mayor of Lexington, Kentucky, from 1972 to 1977 died following a brief illness. Pettit never once made headlines for smoking crack. He never did a stretch in the pen for drugs. He was never arrested stalking anyone. The biggest deal in Lexington when he took office was University of Kentucky basketball. The biggest deal in Lexington when he left office was University of Kentucky basketball. Nearly 40 years after Pettit’s tenure in Lexington City Hall, the biggest deal in Lexington is University of Kentucky basketball.
Pettit may not have turned Lexington into a world-famous city during his time in the city’s big office, but he also didn’t get stoned and doze in his chair while the city turned into a globally noted tragicomedy. Obama didn’t issue a statement noting Pettit’s many accomplishments. Holder didn’t interrupt a weapons-trafficking operation to eulogize him. And TMZ didn’t create a banner headline about him — in good taste or bad.