Marion Barry

15 Jan

I lived in or near Washington D.C. for most of the late 1980’s and 1990’s, so I got a front row seat for the spectacle of Marion Barry’s arrest, and his political comeback – just in time to go down with the good ship D.C.Municipal Government. It was a lively show all round; full of sturm unt drang, pontification, intestinal gas, and unintended comedy. The consensus on the Right was that Barry was a crook and a mountebank. The Left did their level best to ignore the whole thing.

I’m not persuaded that the issue was anywhere near as simple as all that. Granted, Barry seems to have spent much of his time in office steering contracts to his associates, but what else was there for him to do?

Barry came to office during the latter end of the Civil Rights era. Like a great many other politically prominant Blacks of the day his experience was entirely from the activist end. Most such men, once elected, found that there is most of heaven and all of hell between criticising a government from the outside and running it from the inside. All over the country former activists turned candidate were elected to minor offices, and took their first baby steps as administrators. Some of them blew up quickly, while others either had or developed the skills to go with the jobs they had taken on. A few incompetants hung on long enough to be serious problems. But clowns and statesmen alike had the luxury of making their mistakes in local arenas. Barry had no such luck.

Regardless of the wording of the bill that gave D.C. its own elected government, the odds and sods in Congress had no real intention of ceding real control. At a minimum they were going to kibbbitz every decision of importance. I don’t know what the official records say, but my indelible impression is that Barry soon found that the only power he had was the power to malfease. Washington D.C. is the capitol; it has a life of its own, but not much of one. Subtract the Federal Government and what you have left is a smallish Southern city, with a smallish city’s resources. The problem is that the Federal side makes demands that no smallish city can afford to meet. Oh, the Federal Government makes payments to the City; enough to more than make up for the loss of taxes represented by all the Federal property. But not enough to pay for the level of services expected of a national capitol. And those services were not to be neglected; Congress would see to that. Add to this the simple fact that congresscritters meddle. They like cheap taxi fares, so nothing rational will be done about the administration of taxis in the city. They want a light rail system to rival Paris, London, or Moscow, so one gets built. Never mind that the Metro (aka Congress’s Toy Train Set) is a money pit that siphons off the funds that would allow for a first rate bus system.

I supopose that Barry probably would have made an expensive mess of any city he tried to run. He was a Liberal Democrat, in love with all the usual expensive Government projects that don’t work. But he never had a chance to be fiscally sensible. If he had Congress would have found a way to overrule him.

When Barry was ousted he was replaced by a Reform Candidate, who naturally caught the blame for the necessary dislocations. Sharon Prat Kelly actually did a sterling job with the resources at her command, but many of her more sensible ideas were frustrated by politics, both local and national. It didn’t help that she had never learned to smile attractively; every picture of her in which she tried looked like she was having a hysterical fit. She lasted exactly one term, because she caught the blame for the upheaval that the inevitable consequence of any serious reform. Her replacement was, of course, Barry. His comeback was assured by an ill advised editorial in the Washington Post. Written in the style of a prudish spinster faced with the prospect of a strip bar opening up in her neighborhood it said, in essence, “you can’t POSSIBLY vote for THAT MAN!”. Not unnaturally the residents of the Disctrict reacted by giving him a landslide. Had I been in D.C. for the election I would have voted for him myself. By that time the imminant wreck of the D.C. budget was becoming clear, and it seemed fitting that the Captain go down with the ship.

In some other city – not one of National importance – Barry could have made his mistakes in his first term, and possibly learned from them. Out of the national limelight, he could have imposed the necessary economies, fired the requisit number of idiots, and moved on. In D.C. he never had the chance. He was, at all times, a captive thrice over; to his own Liberal political philosophy, to the prescribed behavior of the Politically Black, and to Congress. Under those constraints he had no more chance than a fiddler’s bitch.


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