Marion Barry: The Houdini Mayor

A FEW years ago, I watched a Washington City Council member alternate between anger and awe as he marveled over how Mayor Marion Barry seemed to slip through traps that would have surely closed on other politicians: Charges of using city funds to pay for posh vacations; a stream of city officials convicted for corruption; Christmas-week visits to a drug dealer at a Ramada Inn; a woman who goes to jail rather than tell a grand jury whether she sold cocaine to Marion Barry - and comes out to find generous payments waiting for her, arranged for by friends of the mayor during her unfortunate absence. What more did a mayor have to do to self-destruct? ``I tell you,'' said the council member, ``there's something mystical about him.'' And so, for most of his 12 years in office, there has been a sense that Barry was beyond the reach of rules.

Just recently, the mayor, who was not an announced candidate, showed up at a mayoral candidates' forum. When asked by a student how he would improve opportunities for young people, the mayor delivered a remarkable answer: ``Young kids ... don't want to just recreate all the time, you want some money in their pocket, too,'' and he proposed lowering the child-labor laws.

Yet the next day, not a word about this recommendation that 12-year-olds join the labor force in the nation's capital. A proposal that would have forced other candidates to document their sanity went unreported and unridiculed. If Ronald Reagan was the Teflon president, Marion Barry is the Houdini mayor. No spot has been too tight, until, perhaps, the one he is in now: in court, watching as a jury is selected to try him on drug and perjury charges.

Public support for Barry had been waning, partly due to his implausible accounts of his outrageous public behavior, and because any mayor will lose support in a city with a staggering murder rate, official corruption, and deteriorating services. In a sense, the mayor's drug arrest revived his support. Putting hidden cameras in a hotel room to bust him for smoking crack at the invitation of an old girlfriend seemed to validate Barry's enduring complaint that the US Attorney was out to bring him down with an intensity and extravagance he would not bring to bear on a white mayor.

That charge, like a bad used car, works just well enough to be manipulated by a skillful salesman like Barry. For many in this mostly black city, the argument hit home. How many families in D.C. have not been touched by drugs or felt mistreated by white officials, shopkeepers, or police?

But even Barry may have exceeded his own audaciousness when he admitted smoking crack, but blamed federal prosecutors for endangering his life by supplying it in the sting: ``They had me ingest crack-cocaine. ... I could have been dead now.'' By admitting crack use, he may hope to preempt the embarrassing video tape of his evening at the Vista from being shown in court.

Six years ago, Barry denied earlier allegations of drug use, saying, ``[If] I saw anyone around me using drugs, I'd run out and call the police.'' I asked him afterward if he knew how absurd that sounded, given the evidence mounting even then that he had used drugs. Barry smiled and said simply, ``But the old ladies love it.''

And so, apparently, do others. A recent mayoral-preference poll shows Barry tied for first place. This year's election seems reduced to the issue of whether it was right for the FBI to use an old flame to lure Barry into a wired hotel room to smoke crack. But the charges of perjury added to the indictment have changed the stakes for Barry.

The US Attorney used the misdemeanor evidence of the sting to pressure a reported 19 people to testify that Barry has used illicit drugs. Barry has told grand jurors he never has. If the jury at his trial concludes he's been lying, they could convict him of perjury - a felony - which would remove Barry from office and reelection.

Barry has won points in the past by noting witnesses against him (drug felons and co-conspirators) are probably less interested in cleaning up government than greasing their own skids through the criminal-justice system.

But several witnesses have held city contracts. The political issue is not only whether the mayor has a drug problem, for which he receives much sympathy. But has that problem allowed drugs to influence city government? Mr. Barry's misrule seems to mock D.C.'s drive for political self-rule (could Congress trust a mayor to control the city budget or appoint judges?) and undercut his credibility to fight our most savage problem - drug homicide.

The man in smart double-breasted suits walking into trial each day is, outwardly, different from the dashiki-clad civil rights activist who first appeared on the local scene 25 years ago. ``I'm as comfortable in the suites,'' he says, ``as I am in the streets.''

But in recent years, Barry has likely seen a lot more suites. He has been generous to wealthy developers who have been generous to him, while failing to provide the poor with better public housing. The man on trial at the federal courthouse has not forgotten who he is, or where he came from, but he may have lost sight of the fact that often people who set out to change the world, find that the world has changed them.

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