Joseph S. Fulda
Joseph Fulda is a freelance writer living in New York City. He is the author of Eight Steps Towards Libertarianism.
Background: The U.S. Constitution provides in Article I, Section 8 that the capital district, wherever it may be, shall be under the exclusive control of the U.S. Congress. After considerable lobbying by residents, Congress granted the District of Columbia "home rule" in steps, with a mayor and city council elected by its residents. The first mayor was Walter E. Washington, a quiet, unassuming man right for the times. He was eventually defeated by the flamboyant activist Marion S. Barry. Barry, who holds a B.S. and an M.S. in chemistry, served as mayor for twelve years, till being "busted" in 1990. Ever the comeback kid, he soon assumed a seat on the D.C. Council, possible because he was only a misdemeanant, not a felon. In 1994 he defeated both primary and general election opponents to become mayor again. After four more years he had had enough-but he returned to the D. C. Council. In his first term as mayor he was credited with decent stewardship, but afterwards gained a deserved reputation for maladministration which culminated in the city being put-like New York-in receivership. To his admirers his personal sincerity and goodwill-and his genuine heart for others-were never in doubt. That and his undeniable charisma are what have kept him a perennial figure on the Washington scene. The following was written shortly after his stunning win for his fourth term-after his having served six months jail time. The conservative media wrote him o with ridicule and with charges, true enough, of disingenuous appeals to racialism by both his supporters and his detractors. The occasional exception was The National Review, which had this to say:
Barry is a demagogue, a liar, and a Renaissance man of degeneracy, but he has a point: extraordinary resources were devoted to trapping him into an act of criminal behavior. He should have been removed by the voters, who will be less disposed to throw him out as a result of the government's tactics
And, later on:
Marion Barry was finally convicted on one charge of cocaine possession. The jury acquitted him on another, and was hung on a dozen more. . . . Not a bad outcome, really; the government used dubious methods to catch him in an offense that-let's face it-isn't really regarded as all that serious by much of the population.
NR went on to say that he was finished, but carefully added "for now." What follows is a retrospective with deep lessons for today as more and more law-enforcement efforts are diverted from catching criminals to setting up weak-willed folks and turning them into criminals. True, it often doesn't take that much, human weaknesses what they are, but if, as George Will argues, government is always a teacher, the lesson seems to be: Bring out the worst in your neighbor, so that then you can condemn him. Not very Christian. Not very American.
The gap between words preached and deeds practiced is known to many as "hypocrisy." But isn't "It is a sin, and I have sinned, and I ask for forgiveness" more a sign of honesty before man, and humility before God than the sinner's consistent insistence, "It is not wrong, and I have done no wrong"? The mayor of Washington, D.C. is a man whose words on welfare reform have been right on target. Marion Barry is also a man with large areas of weakness to which he is likely to yield with sufficient temptation. But are we not all beset by large areas of weakness to which we are likely to yield with sufficient temptation? Yet all of us are not like the mayor in speaking the truth about these weaknesses. Mayor Barry fell because of his weaknesses, but God allowed him to rise again. Is it not possible that his public humility and honesty regarding his fall from grace endeared him to man and God alike-or must we look for racialism in everything?
And what of that fall? It is often forgotten that the overwhelming majority of the government's case against Mayor Barry-including felony perjury charges-was rejected by the jury; they convicted him of just one count of a petty offense, and had they been aware of their power to nullify the law they doubtless would not have convicted him of even that. Why? Must we presume that the jury acted on racial motives? Perhaps they were simply disgusted-as I was-with the conduct of the U.S. Attorney trying the case. What sort of man is it who uses a man's former lover, a much younger model to boot, to entice him into the mortal sin of adultery in order to catch him at the petty offense of drug use? If I had to make the call, I would surely say that the conduct of the government was far more vicious, in both senses of the word, than the conduct of the hapless defendant. Yes, indeed, Mr. Barry was predisposed to both adultery and drug use-so what does our honorable government do? Steer him clear of the temptations he finds very difficult to resist, or play the part of the "Christian Devil" to his weaknesses in the basest sort of way? The latter, it appears. The principle here is "Get him, and never mind how." What Mayor Barry did, he did out of human weakness. What the U.S. Attorney's office did, it did out of calculation with the sting operation personally approved by the Attorney General. Judged by traditional moral standards, which is worse?
Yes, it is true that Mr. Barry's re-emergence was largely the result of street youth. But why do we have to see race in that? Perhaps we can see in it, instead, a sense of fair play-even by the rules of the street-absent in the office of the U.S. Attorney. And perhaps we can see it as respect for telling it like it is, whatever one's weaknesses. Marion Barry was mayor of Washington, D.C. again because the majority of voters was able to identify with a man with weaknesses who is able to admit to them and with a victim of a criminal-justice system that is more interested in making hits on those on high than it is on doing its job. Mr. Barry was also mayor again because he is secure enough to accept himself as he is, contradictions, failings, and all, and deal with them, publicly and with considerable grace under considerable pressure: How many of us can say that and still be telling no lie? *
"Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person." -Mother Teresa