Marion Barry, Act XVII

Eugene Robinson, Washington Post, Jan. 6, 2006

“There are no second acts in American lives” is one of the few truly dumb things F. Scott Fitzgerald ever wrote. Everybody in America gets an Act II, and even an Act III—look at how Arnold Schwarzenegger went from bodybuilder to movie star to governor. Here in Washington we have an even better example, as one of the city’s most fascinating, gifted and skilled politicians takes the stage for what must, by now, be something like Act XVII.

Love him or hate him, the former mayor of the nation’s capital, Marion Barry—and yes, I should have added “deeply flawed” to that string of adjectives—is back in the limelight. That’s where he thrives, and probably where he belongs.

This week he made headlines by calling a news conference to forgive the assailants who the night before, he reported, had confronted him at gunpoint in his apartment and stolen his wallet. “I don’t even want you prosecuted, really. I love you,” he said, asking the unidentified young men to turn themselves in. Still, Barry said, he was “a little hurt” at the affront: “There is a sort of an unwritten code in Washington, among the underworld and the hustlers and these other guys, that I am their friend.”

That’s him, all right.

I began my career at The Post covering Barry’s first term as mayor. With his nonstop wheeling and dealing, his inability to stay out of nudie bars, and his charming, in-your-face roguishness, he was a young reporter’s ticket to the front page. His three terms in office basically made the careers of a generation of local journalists, a fact of which he often reminds us.

The rest is history—the sting operation in a hotel room, the woman who lured him there, the mayor leaning back as he takes a hit from the crack pipe, the arrest, the stunned reaction, the immortal phrase: “Bitch set me up.”

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That’s one reason I’m not making fun of Barry’s return: Others may have lined their pockets with public funds during his tenure, but he didn’t. And, whether you have any fondness for politics and politicians, it’s hard to dislike the guy. Getting reelected mayor after being videotaped smoking crack should make him a shoo-in for the Politicians’ Hall of Fame. Barry has as much of that special charisma, that all-eyes-on-me presence, as any politician I’ve ever met. At 69, he can still light up a room.

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