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The Last of the Black Emperors: The Hollow Comeback of Marion Barry in a New Age of Black Leaders.

How apotentially great black leader betrayed his promise, his city, and his people

Not long after I arrived in Washington two years back, notice arrived of a series of Marion Barry press events designed to sell his budget proposals. In District political circles, this was not unlike receiving the spring schedule at the Arena Stage: A show was guaranteed.

After his own desultory fashion, the mayor did not disappoint. Ever the natural politician, with hair dyed jet black in his seventh decade, Barry feinted and parried throughout the week, at ease if a bit bored. When a reporter suggested that Barry's budget, lamed with monies for one dysfunctional program or another, might not gain the approval of the city's financial control board, Barry loosened a practiced snarl. Cut his programs, he said with voice artfully deepening, and there will be "blood in the streets!" Here we had a bit of antique racial mau-mauing, this notion that Barry, half militant and half mayor, was as Horatio at the bridge: Disregard him and his people will riot. But the threat made the evening newscasts and the next day's newspapers.

Two days later Barry advised The Washington Post editorial board that his threat was "just a generic street term" And so dramaturgy fades into farce.

The corrosive emptiness of much of Marion Barry's tenure as mayor, in particular his second, third, and fourth terms, is Washingtons burden. And Jonetta Barras' perceptive new book, The Last of the Black Emperors: The Hollow Comeback of Marion Barry in a New Age of Black Leaders, amounts to an autopsy for that time, and for a brand of racially tinged politics that once dominated more than a few of the nation's cities.

These politics were embraced nearly as often by white liberals as by some blacks, to the mutual detriment of both. As Barras makes clear, Barry's deceits and failures forever puncture the notion that there is a transcendence to be found in the politics of racial nationalism and resentment.

What's less clear is why Barry's brand of politics held sway in Washington so long after voters in other cities moved on. Washingtonians used to explain their continued allegiance to Barry by talking of his symbolic resonance for the nation. That was a fragile conceit.

By 1998, Barry was a political dinosaur and Washington was his swamp. That said, Barry's decline presents a problem for a newcomer such as myself. To watch Barry now, with his fatigued rhetoric, shriveled political base, and almost comic megalomania, is not unlike trying to describe a man by peering at his shadow.

Barras' book encompasses far more than Barry's recent political comeback, moving backward in time to examine his life in his poetically named birthplace of Itta Bena, Miss., and his work in the civil rights movement as well as in Washington. By doing so, she reminds us of Barry's political genius, of his instinctive feel for the vernacular of the city and its politics. (In a felicitous and earthy phrase, she writes: "Barry knew the District the way lovers know each others' bodies") In her hands, the man's power and appeal is evident, even if one is nonetheless more inclined to view Barry as closer to charlatan than fallen hero.

Barry arrived in Washington at a propitious time for a young man wearing the epaulets of the civil rights struggle in the Deep South. A stolid government town, Washington had not been a place of lynching and mobs. But its Jim Crow segregation had been complete, if genteelly enforced. And the city remained segregated for years afterwards.

Barry plunged into the fight for Home Rule as Washingtons very own angry young man. But when the riots came in 1968 (the city's only Long Hot Summer), Barry became a peacemaker. That fit a pattern. Posturing aside, Barry most often confined his militancy to the campaign stump and the corporate boardroom.

His first mayoral campaign in 1978 brimmed with hope. His coalition was multiracial and crossed class lines, as varied an effort as could be found in American politics. He carried a largely white ward, and beat longtime establishment politicians. To read of that victory now is to feel the weight of a lost opportunity, to sense how a braver leader might have sown a different seed.

Barry did not see a new politics aborning. He saw only a slim margin of victory and an unreliable political base. And he was well-versed in the argot of the militant wing of the civil rights movement, which viewed government jobs and contracts as proper recompense for enduring life in a racist society. So Barry built an old-fashioned race-based political machine, hiring thousands of people, agreeing to spectacularly generous union work rules and handing out contracts to friends and supporters. He claimed a patina of moral authority for all this. To question his empire building was to challenge the legitimacy of black political empowerment.

Barras notes that ethnic politicians of many hues have constructed such political machines, and that corruption "moral and legal" is hardly a signal trait of Washingtons politicians. But she acknowledges the rub: Unlike a James Michael Curley in Boston or a Richard Daley in Chicago, Barry's machine tendered jobs by the bushel but too rarely demanded work in return. Moreover, Daley built his organization as the good times rolled in the 1950s and 1960s. Barry, by contrast, constructed his machine in the 1980s, as the Great Society foundered on the shoals of the Reagan Revolution and middle-class sentiment turned against America's cities.

Barras envisions her book as an exercise in cross-racial interpretation. She wants white audiences to understand Barry's enduring appeal, to comprehend why exposure of his faults and the continual assaults by the U.S. Congress often fire up the passions of his black defenders. She quotes political scientist Ron Walters: "We have elevated people who were defiant of the system... we've respected those people who can stand up to the system, and Marion has told almost everybody in this town where to get off?.'

Perhaps. But by indulging in such resentments, Barry's supporters entered a political and racial culde-sac. Barras recognizes this. So she also wants her black audience to understand how their resentments and diminished expectations encouraged self-destructive political behavior by their leaders. Such problems have deep roots in the black diaspora; Barry, she writes, personifies Anansi the Spider, a mythic figure found in African literature. The Anansi is a wily, multifaced creature who survives by trickery and cunning, alternately infuriating and tickling his followers.

As a narrative device, Barry as Anansi is a bit overdone. But Barras' detailed examination of the complex relationship between Barry and the black community, and the toll taken on his leadership by his sexual crudities and chemical dependence, is incisive and brave. Her examination of Barry's relationship with the white community is less nuanced. She skillfully limns Barry's cross-racial appeal in 1978, his ability to inspire hope and fear in white voters. So smart, so charismatic, so threatening: thus Barry's enduring appeal. But Barras misses the quid pro quo embedded in that relationship. Some white liberals and ambitious developers of no particular ideology essentially ceded city government to Barry in the early 1980s, so long as he left alone their cloistered enclaves west of Rock Creek Park. The welter of motivations that drives such paternalistic trade-offs is more completely captured and examined in books such as Jim Sleeper's Liberal Racism.

For years, leading white and black liberals failed to seriously question the growing size of city government and the contracts given to mayoral cronies. They acquiesced in the downward slide of the public schools and tolerated growing corruption and incompetence in the police department. The effect on black Washington was terrifying. Beginning in 1987, the District, per capita, had more police than any city in the nation and the highest homicide rate. But the bodies accumulated almost exclusively in black neighborhoods. Few whites suffered when Barry's cronies failed to train welfare mothers and left the Medicaid elderly to rot in city-funded nursing homes. Whites paid for private security and snow plows, and white parents decamped to private schools or funded their own teachers and supplies to shore up their local public schools. Barry appointed powerful white attorneys and lobbyists to zoning and adjustment boards, and he was ever willing to allow white developers to extract vast sums from downtown development.

This trade-off cemented Washingtons division into two cities, and fed a cynicism that today erodes participation in the political life of the city. (The editorial board of The Washington Post played its own role, endorsing Barry in his first three elections).

Finally, there is the terrible discredit the Barry era brought on those he claimed to succor: the city's poorest. As Barry descended into farce in his fourth term (and Barras is far too optimistic about the miniscule reforms enacted by the mayor's top aides in that final term), no one paid attention as welfare reform foundered in the District, as homeless men filled the streets, and as foster care and low-income housing decayed and crumbled. The city's only public college teeters on the verge of dissolution, and burial benefits for the penniless are revoked. But to talk now of helping Washingtons poor as often summons memories of Barry's sweetheart contracts and employment programs that produced few jobs. This neglect, too, is part of Barry's legacy.

Barras' book is not fully realized. Her writing is elegant and metaphorical at one turn, choppy and repetitious the next. A reader sometimes glimpses a still stronger book inside this one, wanting only for the hand of a good editor.

But her book offers a courageous assessment, and should be read as warning and signpost for the future. This past summer, some Washingtonians complained of their boredom with the crop of mayoral candidates in the first election of the post-Barry era. They looked at the Democratic field, at an intellectually impressive former chief financial officer and three council members of reformist impulse and at least middling accomplishment, and found little fire and flash.

Where is the Marion of this political class? some ask. Where is the sizzle?

It's a virtue of Barras' book to remind us that perhaps such boredom is a sign of maturity.
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Author:Powell, Michaell
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1998
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