Ignoring D.C., 'D.C.' dishes dirt on Barry

May 12, 1994|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd | Wiley A. Hall 3rd,Sun Staff Writer

"Dream City" is not really about Washington at all. It is about the mercurial rise of former mayor Marion Barry -- from street activist to political boss -- and about the roles race, power and politics played in his eventual downfall.

But that's OK. Marion Barry makes far sexier reading.

Somewhere, buried inside Mr. Barry's sad tale, lies the kernel of the larger story; for the same fears and prejudices that propelled Marion Barry to the top and then brought him down also account for the even sadder fate of Washington, a city known throughout the world as the "Murder Capital" of the country.

The tale of Mr. Barry and his city could have raised important issues: Did the anti-poverty programs of the 1960s and 1970s fail because of bad policy or bad people? Can the cities be saved? Can officials be held accountable? Can the grass roots ever be enfranchised?

Unfortunately, the authors of "Dream City" -- Mr. Sherwood is the political reporter for WRC-TV in Washington and a former city hall reporter for the Washington Post; Mr. Jaffe is an editor with Washingtonian magazine -- never dig much deeper than the sex, drugs and political corruption scandals that toppled Mr. Barry from power in 1990. Theirs is a straightforward, passionless narrative in which facts, allegations and speculation are freely intermingled with no attempt to distinguish between them. Superficial and focused almost exclusively on the sensational, "Dream City" is the literary equivalent of a "A Current Affair."

XTC Can the book be recommended? Yes, but for the same reason one would recommend "A Current Affair": It rehashes the dirt.

Mr. Barry was a sharecropper's son, born in the Mississippi Delta, educated at Fisk University, nurtured by the civil rights movement. He was a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and one of the first of his generation to make the leap from street activism to politics. A gifted politician, he could "talk the talk" with corporate executives in the boardroom and "walk the walk" with youngbloods on the street.

Adroitly playing both sides of the fence, Mr. Barry became the candidate of choice of Washington's political elite, who counted on him to keep the lid on discontent among the poor; and for the disenfranchised, who expected him to champion their fight for political and economic power.

Mr. Barry's political gift was his ability to exploit the fears of both sides. Lucrative government contracts were steered toward business friends -- black and white -- while the quality of life for the majority of the people plummeted. While citizens suffered, -- the mayor and his buddies lived large, throwing lavish parties, taking luxurious Caribbean vacations. Meanwhile, the mayor's womanizing and bar-hopping got progressively worse.

The authors suggest in their narrative that Mr. Barry was a cynical manipulator from the beginning, but they never prove their case.

They do demonstrate that Washington was ripe for this kind of manipulation. The District was then, and is today, a "colonial city" in which the city's majority black population is held in virtual political and economic bondage by a distant and hostile Congress working in league with a predominantly white business community.

The fears and expectations of the two camps are illustrated by two quotes:

"We're going to show everyone that black people can really run something," a lieutenant of Mr. Barry's says at the start of his administration.

"Some governments are corrupt but are known for their competency," a U.S. senator growls. "Others are incompetent but considered clean. Washington's government is scandalously corrupt and hopelessly incompetent."

As a native of "black" Washington (which remains distinct from "white" Washington), I know that those comments illustrate the dilemma in which my family, neighbors and friends found themselves during Mr. Barry's administration.

The authors, who are white, only touch upon the problem: How do you hold a public official accountable when you distrust the mechanisms for doing so and when you know that the city's enemies in Congress will hold any miscues against it?

Blacks in Washington distrust the media, the business community and law enforcement officials. Those institutions are perceived as being of, and for, the white community. For the most part, as "Dream City" notes, that distrust is well-deserved. Yet those same institutions represent important checks against official abuse of power.

Balancing those fears is a conundrum Washingtonians find themselves in to this day, one of the consequences of life in a colonial city.

Mr. Hall is a columnist for The Evening Sun.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Dream City: Race, Power and the Decline of Washington, D.C. 1964-1994"

Authors: Harry S. Jaffe and Tom Sherwood

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

-! Length, price: 383 pages, $23

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