Saturday, December 26, 2009

How the Other Half Lives

When you are, like me, a careful, bourgeois sort of person who worries all the time about how other people feel, you sometimes have to wonder what it is like to be the other sort of person: recklessly daring and not giving a damn about anyone else. Like Marion Barry, the three-term mayor of Washington, DC. Barry has always taken chances, from joining the SNCC when it meant being jailed and beaten by southern cops to smoking crack in a hotel room when he knew he was being investigated by the FBI. He has been married four times and had dozens of lovers besides, and was for a time, his friends say, a heavy user of numerous drugs. Through all of it he has been a regular church goer, the loudest voice in the amen corner, and he tells everyone that he could not have made it through his trials without Jesus. This "sinner with faith" approach to life is more foreign to me than just about any other way of living. But what fascinates me even more is Barry's political career. He has never troubled about telling flagrant lies in public if he thought it would help him or his causes -- I remember a description of one of his press conferences that had him "playing the race card, the class card, the blame the media card, and any other card that came to hand." He serves quite well as a definition for "shameless." He set up the DC government as a machine to take money from rich white people and funnel it to his mostly black supporters, not really caring whether this would in the long term be good for his constituents or the city. He allowed the city's permitting authorities to become swamps of ineptitude because this served his own purposes: when it became nearly impossible to get a permit for building anything in the city through the usual channels, the only way was to become a good friend of the mayor or a major contributor to his campaigns, so that he his staff would help you bypass the whole system. The schools in particular became a patronage scheme, with hundreds of cushy bureaucratic jobs for Barry supporters and no particular interest in educating children.

These days Barry serves as councilman for the poorest ward in the city, and Matt Labash wrote a great description of the way he does business in the Weekly Standard. Barry is always out in the neighborhoods, talking to people, letting them see him, showing them that he cares and is on their side.

But here at the Temple of Praise, people don't break out the scales and stack Barry's good deeds versus his bad ones. His popularity here transcends such minutiae. Supporting him, in spite of his struggles--even because of them--is almost a symbolic sacrament. Plus, he does something few other politicians in the District, even the city's later black mayors, do: He shows up.

Over the course of my time with him, he shows up to senior centers, where he gives 20 bucks to the oldest doll in attendance, which often takes some sorting out, what with senility. He shows up to the planning of the Labor Day picnic that he throws out of his own budget, overseeing details down to the hot dogs and what Go-Go bands are hired. The fact that he regularly gets raked over the coals by newspapers--which Barry tells me Ward 8ers largely don't read--for tax evasion and traffic arrests and addiction issues and many of the pathologies that plague their community in such numbers might help him rather than hurt him. . . . As James Coates, senior minister of Bethlehem Baptist Church, says, "He understands our path--stony the road we trod. So when someone attacks Mr. Barry, they attack all of us."

I think the virtue people admire most, in their hearts, is courage. People like Barry earn forgiveness for their sins because they live without fear. A politician who combines courage with some sort of ability to connect with ordinary people can get away with almost anything. He is "one of us," but with the guts to compete for the greatest prizes.

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