Marion Barry, the former mayor and councilman of Washington, D.C., was announced dead this morning at 78. As a D.C. resident myself, for nearly all of my life I’ve learned of (and followed) Barry’s conflicting relationship with fulfilling his role as an effective politician. Although I wasn’t alive during any of his terms as mayor, to this day, people speak of the impact Barry left on our Nation’s capitol. In connection to Polisci 101, much of Barry’s role as a politician related to principles discussed in Machiavelli’s “The Prince.”
For nearly his entire career, Barry’s involvement in politics produced controversy and skepticism. Early on, drugs and alcohol plagued his promising future. On January 19, 1990, he was arrested on charges of cocaine possession, following an extensive investigation by the FBI. In the midst of his arrest, the condition of D.C.’s economy was in an ever-worsening state. People (my parents included) were outraged that a public figure holding the highest position of power in a city’s government would abandon his citizen so irresponsibly. Later in 2002, he was busted again for cocaine and marijuana possession—though, at that point he was no longer mayor. Similarly, his inability to serve the Washingtonian populace was reflected in his attendance of the 1987 Super Bowl. While watching the New York Giants pummel the Denver Broncos, D.C. saw one of the biggest snowstorms recorded to date. As a result of his absence, plows and government resources essential to winter storms cleanup were deployed late, eliciting anger from D.C. citizens. Further down the road (in 2010), Barry was stripped of his chairmanship of the D.C. City Council after being of accused of mishandling campaign funds. “Some governments are corrupt but are known for their competency…Washington’s government is scandalously corrupt and hopelessly incompetent,” Sen. John C. Danforth said, referring to the unprincipled financial dealings carried out during Barry’s third term. Despite the many controversies that seemed to follow Barry, his political opponents regarded him as invincible; he held the office of the mayor during four separate terms.
Though many of Barry’s actions disappointed D.C. voters, his passion for public service was manifested wherever politics situated him. Before he was elected into a position of power, Barry became a proponent of poor blacks in urban areas of the city. In 1967, he helped direct extensive federal grants towards job networking programs for disenfranchised black individuals. Later in 1970, he was applauded for his effort in seeking to improve the relationship between African American men and the police. Much of what Barry fought for was rooted in his personal upbringing and involvement in the Civil Rights era. In the early 1960, Barry worked alongside Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in establishing the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)—a group that assembled college students seeking to eradicate state sponsored racism in the South.
Barry’s inconsistent style of leadership—to say the least—served as a source of much frustration for others involved in Washington’s political sphere. Growing up, I remember sentiments of hilarity arising when Barry’s name was brought up in the news. For many of Washingtonians, Barry stood as a polarizing figure. His support was often dictated by neighborhood demographics, as he was backed by an overwhelming majority of D.C.’s black population. For the black community, he became a figure of hope for kids struggling to find themselves legitimate sources of income. For much of the white community, however, he was blamed for much of the disarray that existed at the core of D.C.’s government, education system, and economy.
Barry’s tenure, like so many other politicians of his time, reflected many of the moral concepts discussed in Machiavelli’s, “The Prince.” In this book, Machiavelli asserts, “he who wishes to be obeyed must know how to command.” Barry’s ability to be reelected demonstrated his understanding of this notion. As mayoral candidate, he connected to potential voters by placing an emphasis on his own story of personal growth—it resembled the African American ideal for achieving success. He famously noted, “who can better help our city recover than someone who himself has gone through recovery?” To win mayorship, he understood he didn’t have to cater his appeal to all D.C. voters to gain the majority; instead, he focused on African American neighborhoods in need of revitalization.
Dissimilarly, Barry’s role as mayor competes with the Machiavellian belief that it’s, “better to be feared than to be loved.” So much of his continued success was the result of his charismatic disposition and idealized view of Washington’s future. While over the course of his career, it became increasingly difficult to recognize his credibility, he instilled in Washingtonians the feeling that politics was a personal affair.
As I close out this blog post, I think it’s important to note how many of my Facebook friends are using the hashtag “Mayor For Life,” in connection to Marion Barry’s unexpected death. No matter the number of allegations of financial mismanagement, or arrests for drug abuse, Barry will be remembered as the defining figure of Washington’s recent political landscape. He will continue to be loved, despite his worst of moments.