Banter With the Beast

Marion Barry, Comeback King, on Spitzer, Weiner, and Being Truly ‘Humble’

Marion Barry, who’s again D.C.’s most popular pol, tells Lloyd Grove what he thinks of Spitzer and Weiner.

When it comes to bouncing back from supposedly career-ending scandals, Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer could take lessons from Marion Barry.

“I identify with the fallen, whoever they may be,” Barry told me during a weekend visit to New York. “Everybody, at some point in life, is gonna get knocked down.”

Washington, D.C.’s “Mayor for Life,” a title Barry relishes even though it was bestowed sarcastically by his critics, looks damned good for a man of 77 who is in recovery from drug abuse, survived prostate cancer, suffers from diabetes—which causes him to walk with some difficulty—and was forced to get a kidney transplant 4 1/2 years ago. “It transformed my life,” he said of the new kidney, which was donated by a lady friend. “It made me look young. My skin is smoother.”

Barry famously spent six months in federal prison 22 years ago on a cocaine-possession conviction. (He told me he has been “clean” for two decades, notwithstanding a dropped marijuana-possession charge, and he recently stopped sipping wine “because I don’t want to mess up my new kidney.”) The jail time came after an eight-week trial punctuated by an FBI sting video of Hizzoner sucking on a crack pipe at the urging of former girlfriend Rasheeda Moore, in a Washington hotel room equipped with hidden cameras, where he uttered those iconic words: “Bitch set me up.”

“I’m very quotable,” Barry said with a laugh.

Now he was in town to appear on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry show. As we sat in his Manhattan hotel room sipping Coca-Colas (his regular, mine diet), he roared with laughter when I mentioned that his bitter aside about his ex-girlfriend ended up decorating thousands of T-shirts, at the time a popular fashion statement.

“What I regret is not printing the T-shirts,” he said with a chuckle. “That’s what I regret.”

They made money for someone, I said.

“They sure did. I should have made it myself.”

Barry, who is eager to relitigate his drug conviction all these years later, maintains that he was “persecuted” by the federal government, especially the Justice Department, then under Republican control. “They wanted to kill me,” he said. “They wanted to kill me.” On MSNBC he claimed he was sentenced by “a racist judge.” He told me that the feds’ “propaganda arm” sent the crack video “to every U.S. Embassy around the world” in order to humiliate him.

“It’s a terrible emotional thing,” he said. “My son at that point was 10 years old, and my [third] wife, Effie, was 10 years younger than me. And it goes through your mind, ‘What’s your wife gonna think about this? What’s your son gonna think about this? What does the public think about this?’ Then you start looking at ‘If I hadda, woulda, coulda.’”

On Sunday night, after Barry returned to Washington, he told me the Trayvon Martin verdict was yet another example of “institutionalized racism” that still pervades American society, notwithstanding the election and reelection of an African-American president of the United States.

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“The verdict was awful,” he said, adding that “the prosecutors overcharged [George] Zimmerman—they should have gone for manslaughter” instead of second-degree murder, and “they did a horrible job.” He said the whole ordeal should once again inspire a push for gun control, arguing that there was no justification for Zimmerman, a Neighborhood Watch volunteer, to be carrying a concealed weapon. As for a future federal Justice Department investigation possibly resulting in a hate-crime conviction for Zimmerman, “That ain’t gonna happen,” Barry said. “The bar is too high for hate crimes.” The only practical option is public protests, he said.

“The good news,” Barry said, “is that Zimmerman will never be in peace. He won’t be able to get a job. He’ll have to go underground, travel incognito, and never live in peace. That’s the good news for me.”

It should be noted that Barry, for all his self-acknowledged flaws, is enormously charming and likable—qualities I have appreciated since I was a reporter at The Washington Post during his mayoralty and afterward. In the two decades since his temporary downfall, the Mayor for Life has been periodically brought low by various embarrassing incidents involving women, drugs, and, in recent days, a government ethics violation for accepting $6,800 in gifts from city contractors—a breach for which he was censured and fined $13,600. Yet Barry remains the city’s most popular politician—with an 81 percent approval rating among African-Americans alone.

Two years after getting out of jail, he was reelected to a fourth term as mayor—an office he held until 1999—and today he is the much-loved councilman representing the District of Columbia’s crime- and poverty-plagued Ward 8.

“I don’t care who you are, how rich you are, how poor you are,” Barry told me. “A divorce might pull you down. Drugs may pull you down. Kids who are out of control may pull you down. A serious death in your family. What I say to people is, if you fall down, fall down on your back. Then you can look up. If you can look up, you can get up. And if you can get up, you can go up.”

Barry has every reason to believe in the politics of redemption. But that’s not to say he’s a freelance surrogate for former congressman Weiner’s mayoral campaign or former governor Spitzer’s race for city comptroller. Barry told me he has spoken to neither. And on MSNBC on Saturday, he noted that Spitzer—who had prosecuted a prostitution ring as attorney general before being caught as governor patronizing call girls himself—could be accused of “hypocrisy.” At first Barry declined to say whether he even respects these flawed candidates.

“I don’t have to. I don’t live in New York,” he parried. “Just because you identify with somebody, because you understand the emotion about it, doesn’t give you the right to have an opinion about the political situation.” When pressed, he conceded: “I have respect if they are truly contrite, if they’re truly sorry about what they did, if they’re humble about it, that the political ‘game’ is not a game, that it’s an honest comeback from hell into another kind of situation.”

Barry added that the political profession has changed for the worse since he started out in Washington four decades ago as a Mississippi native who picked cotton as a teenager and went on to obtain his master’s degree in chemistry, as well as a leadership position in the civil-rights movement, before winning a seat on the D.C. school board. “When I was mayor for 16 years and did other things, it was fun,” he said. “You got a lot done. Now it’s hell being a politician. The press is unscrupulous. The press looks for the negative.”

Yet Barry, a self-described Pentecostal Baptist who regularly attends Sunday services at the Temple of Praise in his ward, finds comfort and solace in the black community, which he insists is “more forgiving” than other ethnic groups. “Studies have shown that, and other things have shown that, based on our spiritual past,” he told me. “I know that to be a fact. We are a forgiving people. People can kick your ass and still sometimes you want to forgive them.”

If Barry sounds unusually reflective for a man who has occasionally been prone to acting before thinking, it’s probably because he just finished writing his memoirs for Simon & Schuster—a potentially fascinating chronicle that is supposed to come out late next year.

Any political comeback, he said, requires a “spiritual base. Whatever your religion is, whatever your philosophy about religion, about death, about God, you have to have a spiritual base because your base is the underpinning.” He cited gospel singer Yolanda Adams’s standard The Battle Is The Lord’s: “‘The battle is not yours, it’s the Lord’s’—I believe that,” Barry told me. “No matter how courageous you are, how tough you are, how you overcome your emotions and your feelings, you have to have an underpinning.”