To Be Absolutely Frank

He’s Back!

No, not the fellow who figures in the Lewinsky report. But the pol who really was set up -- and who was always setting himself up.

By 3.7.02

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I know it's easy for me to say this, now that I live 4,300 miles away, but I can't help feeling cheered by the news that Marion Barry is once again running for office. The former mayor of Washington, D.C. is by far the most entertaining American politician I know of.

My favorite of Barry's lines in that infamous 1990 crack-smoking video was not "the bitch set me up," but his come-on earlier in the evening to the woman in question, the beautiful Rasheeda Moore: "Baby, you know I still love you, even if I didn't treat you right."

There's something endearingly old-fashioned about such a transparent attempt at seduction. I mean, at least he was trying to seduce her. Compare that with another politician's best-known proposition to a lady in a hotel room: "Why don't you just kiss it?"

Barry has always had a certain flair, and the charm of an authentic rascal. No parsing or legalistic evasion from him, nor lip-biting admissions of purely personal wrongdoing. The morning after his arrest, he stood in a church pulpit and confessed: "I realize I've spent too much time doing and caring for others, that I failed to take the time to care for myself."

It seems not even jail could stop Barry from doing others, or at least being done by them. While serving six months for a drug-related misdemeanor (the only one of 14 indictment counts for which he was convicted), he was reportedly observed in his prison's waiting room, participating in a certain act ordinarily reserved for the bedroom or the Oval Office.

When he launched his astonishing comeback less than four years later -- surely a milestone in the modern history of chutzpah -- his best campaign slogan was: "It's not a me thing, it's a we thing." The first time I heard it, I thought he might be showing a newfound humility. Once I realized that he wasn't spelling the word W-E-E, I knew it was still the same old Barry.

Back in office, his power diminished by a congressional takeover of the city's disastrous government, Barry made the news with an absurdly bloated police detail, which once drove to New York to pick him up after a return flight from some "fact-finding" foreign junket. In sheer endurance as well as petty-dictatorial style, he seemed determined to live up to the title (granted him, if I'm not mistaken, by Slate's Jack Shafer, then of Washington City Paper): "Mayor-for-Life."

Now the four-time mayor has announced a run for city council, declaring that "God has blessed me with a ministry to serve unselfishly," and to champion the cause of the "the least, the last and the lost."

No doubt there are plenty who'll believe him, ignoring his history of mutual back-scratching with the city's real estate developers. For many, who imagine a white conspiracy to disenfranchise blacks, Barry's biggest disgrace will always be a badge of martyrdom. After all, the 1990 Vista Hotel sting really was a set-up, of a kind that many politicians and ordinary people could have fallen for.

Of course none of that justifies putting Barry back in a position of power. And yes, I might feel differently if I lived anywhere near the District of Columbia. But if that's the citizens' will, the rest of us can at least look forward to a few more years of shameless and delectable bunkum from the former (and future?) mayor.

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About the Author

Francis X. Rocca ia an American writer in Rome, Italy.