Marion Barry: A victim of his own goodness?

Glenn McNatt

October 30, 1990|By Glenn McNatt

LIKE HIS drug and perjury trial that ended with a hung jury on 12 of 14 counts, the disposition of l'affaire Marion Barry which was concluded Friday, when federal District Court Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson sentenced the mayor to six months in prison, will satisfy no one.

On one side will be those who see sending Barry to jail for the single misdemeanor drug possession charge he was convicted of as too harsh, given that most first offenders convicted of similar offenses only get probation.

On the other side are those who will see the sentence as too lenient, given the massive evidence of Barry's long-term drug abuse, his repeated denials and the hypocrisy of his being commander-in-chief of the district's war on drugs while secretly indulging himself.

The night of his sentencing, a chastened Barry went on ABC Television's "20-20" to be interviewed by Barbara Walters. In one of the most revealing portions of that exchange, Walters asked Barry point blank why he took drugs. Barry replied that, "like many of us," he turned to drugs because of "insecurity."

"There was a need always to be better than I was," he confided to Walters. Barry went on to suggest that need was a result of having grown up poor, and perhaps of a subconscious fear that he might not truly deserve the fame and success that had come to him as an adult.

It was a stunning admission, as much for its apparent ingenuousness as for what could only be the carefully calculated effect it was intended to produce. "I'm only human," Barry seemed to be saying, "a victim of frailties and foibles weak flesh ++ is heir to."

Perhaps Barry really believes being an overachiever makes one more susceptible to drug abuse. That surely is the implication of his "poor-boy-makes-good-but-still-feels-bad" explanation for why smoked crack. Overachievers feel insecure; drugs helps them cope.

That formulation melds in a few sugar-coated phrases every demagogic, divisive, and self-serving argument Barry and his lawyer have used throughout his trial, and which Judge Jackson rightly viewed as indicating Barry's total lack of remorse for his misbehavior.

Here again is Barry the victim, this time of his own goodness. It was only because he was trying to be a better person that he put that crack pipe in his mouth.

The elliptical reference to "many of us" -- to describe others who have found themselves in similar circumstances -- actually conceals a multitude of code phrases: "Many of us" are black men harassed by government and pilloried in the press for trying to help our people. "Many of us" are elected officials driven to sacrifice health and reputations in order to fulfill public duties. "Many of us" are exemplary overachievers driven by insecurities and fears those born to more comfortable stations can scarcely imagine.

But ambition is no excuse for addiction. For every overachiever who smokes crack there probably are 100 underachievers caught up in the same cycle of dependency and abuse. They may indeed all share the same character defect, but their failing is not an excess of goodness.

And while it may be true that as a black man Barry attracted more intense scrutiny than a white official would, it's also certain that knowing he was a potential subject of investigation ought to have made him doubly cautious about what he did and whom he did it with. Moreover, white public officials have been caught and sentenced to jail for committing similar crimes.

Finally, there is nothing more common than an insecure politician. All politicians' self-esteem, reputations and livelihoods are intimately bound up with the intangible bonds of loyalty and affection they must establish with the voters every Election Day. Politicians are by definition people who want desperately to be loved and who live in constant fear of rejection. Such tensions may indeed lead some of them to do self-destructive things, including abuse alcohol and drugs. But they can hardly blame the public for it.

Yet Marion Barry wishes to blame the police, the Republican prosecutor, the media, white racism, Rasheeda Moore and the White House all for his downfall -- in other words, everything and everyone except himself.

The closest Barry has come to admitting his own responsibility for what has happened to him has been to portray himself as an innocent victim of his own goodness -- too eager to rise above his past, too unconcerned by the malicious intrigues of prosecutors and judges, too self-sacrificing ever to abandon public service. But these are only euphemisms for failings that used to have simpler names. They were called ambition, arrogance and greed.

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