Barry, Blossoms Return to D.C.

Rising temperatures seem to energize flora and Fauntroy - a letter from Washington

CHERRY blossoms, summer shorts, and Mayor Marion Barry, all burst into Washington this week, each earlier than expected. Bunsen-burner weather rocketed the daily temperature 15 degrees higher than historic records. Along the sidewalks, longtime Washingtonians made their annual migration from the sunny to shady side of the street. The higher it soared into the 80s, the faster the buds opened, beating the formal start of the Cherry Blossom Festival by two weeks.

Sky-high temperatures brought peeled-down residents to enjoy the blossoms: Out-of-towners don't arrive in earnest until this weekend. When they come, it is always in full force. Last year 19.3 million tourists came, half a million for cherry blossom season alone.

The first cherry trees immigrated from Japan to the Tidal Basin in 1912, but most of today's 3,300 trees are relative newcomers. The Yoshino, with their single blossoms, are in bloom around the Tidal Basin. Kwanzan, with larger double-blossoms, will flower in a week or two elsewhere in the Washington area.

Until cherry-blossom season ends in early April, their delicate blooms and the juicy local politics are likely to generate the most interest in Washington, as both have this week.

The city has seen plenty of more-conventional news the past few days. President Bush announced aid to Panama and Nicaragua - including the lifting of the US trade embargo against Managua. Environmental and industrial interests played tug-of-war with the clean-air bill pending in Congress. Long-differing Democratic factions in the House of Representatives reportedly are near agreement on a compromise child-care bill.

But these developments are not as picturesque as a Japanese cherry tree in bloom. Nor do they have the tabloid appeal of Washington's current local political turmoil.

After seven weeks in out-of-state treatment for addictions, Mayor Barry returned to Washington this week and announced he was resuming full duties. What the three-time mayor did not say was whether he would run for a fourth term in this fall's elections.

That may depend on how he and his political advisers assess his remaining political strength and on the outcome of his trial, scheduled to begin June 4, on charges that he smoked crack cocaine in a Washington hotel room two months ago and committed perjury before a federal grand jury.

For years, unverified accusations of illegal drug use have dogged Barry; he has consistently denied them. This week he admitted to addictions of alcohol and two prescription tranquilizers. He did not mention crack.

Until the mayor's January arrest on the crack charge, Washington's two top political offices appeared likely to remain in the same hands that have held them for years: Barry as mayor, and Walter Fauntroy as the nonvoting delegate to the US House of Representatives.

But Barry's arrest changed the dynamics, dynamiting the logjam that had frustrated less-visible city politicians. Several members of the City Council began running for mayor. Some Barry supporters, including fund raisers, began to drift away.

Finally Fauntroy made the big leap and announced for the mayoral office of his one-time ally, Barry - bringing with him two longtime Barry backers. Fauntroy's move opened up the delegate's office. Into this maelstrom stepped the returning Barry, saying he soon would announced whether he would seek another term, Fauntroy or no Fauntroy. If he does, will enough of his backers remain loyal?

Washingtonians watch, fascinated.

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