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COLUMN ONE : Barry: He Keeps D.C. Guessing : Media scapegoat? Target of a racist plot? Victim of his own excesses? The mayor not only weathers unending controversy, at times he seems to court it.

January 07, 1990|BELLA STUMBO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Inside an elementary school auditorium, in a run-down part of town that tourists never see, Mayor Marion Barry is lecturing 400 youngsters on the evils of drugs and the importance of staying clean.

As mayor of one of the nation's most drug-plagued cities, Barry visits three or four schools a week with his message. It is his way, he says, of helping motivate the children.

His style is relaxed, warm, captivating.

"How many y'all know somebody in your family using drugs?" he asks gently. Nearly every tiny hand in the auditorium rises.

Barry counsels by personal example. "From time to time," he tells them, he is accustomed to "having a glass of wine." But, when his 9-year-old son once asked him why he drinks it, it made a lasting impression. So, he advises the children, whenever someone in the family uses drugs, "Ask them why . . . and ask them to get some help."

It is a good speech. After leading the youngsters in a Jesse Jacksonesque chant--"Keep myself . . . drug-free! Drug-Free! DRUG-FREE!!!!"--Barry opens the floor to questions.

For moments, no one moves. Finally, a solemn-faced little boy marches up the aisle to the microphone, looks up at Barry with steady eyes and, in his small child's voice, asks:

"Do people believe you when you say you don't use drugs?"

A hush falls over the auditorium. No one even snickers. The silence is complete, the scene indelible:

Here stands the mayor of the Free World's capital city, a tall, nice-looking, balding man of 53 in a dark business suit, trying to explain to 400 kids whose lives are being ravaged daily by drugs that he himself is not an addict, a hypocrite, a criminal.

He does it quickly, quietly, in an odd, back-handed way. The news media always focuses on "the negatives," he says. But he is a trained chemist, he knows what drugs can do. And "I know that you can't be a good mayor high on drugs and alcohol, and I want to be a good mayor. I know that you have to keep your body drug-free so that your mind will function well. And I'm going to continue to fight for a drug-free D.C."

A different man might surrender, call it quits, retire, anything to avoid such punishing moments as these. A different man, his reputation already in shreds over his own whispered drug habit, might at least avoid kamikaze runs into neighborhood schools.

Marion Barry's answer is to speed away in his big chauffeur- driven Lincoln to do it again, this time to a group of third-graders.

From yesterday's civil rights hero to today's TV talk show joke, Marion Barry is ridiculed, mocked, disgraced. "Mayor Barely," the pundits call him. "Jerk in the Box," blares a local magazine cover. "King Nightowl," hoots an Oliphant cartoon. "Know what the mayor's answer is to a paralyzing snowstorm?" cackles a comic. "Quick, gimme a straw!"

Barry's much-rumored drug use has never been proved, and he denies it, but it no longer matters. Years of investigations and allegations, the constant gossip about pending indictments, the nonstop headlines blaring luridly of the mayor's personal life have all added up: Innocent or guilty, Barry is a man permanently branded, victim of that old saw--where there's smoke, there must be fire.

Some of his oldest friends and political advisers have lately jumped ship, publicly urging him not to seek a fourth term, for the city's sake, and for his own. Five candidates have already announced for next fall's mayoral race, attacking not only Barry's image but his leadership, too. On Capitol Hill, critics say Barry has set back the District of Columbia's quest for statehood by 20 years.

And all about town, beyond the nation's monuments and shrines, throughout this curious no man's land where some 600,000 Americans, most of them black, live under supervision of the U.S. Congress, the debate goes on: Is Marion Barry the victim of trial by press, of a racist plot against black home rule, or of his own excesses? Is he a sick addict, a brazen rake, or a martyr? Is this a Greek tragedy, or a bad joke?

Washingtonians have been asking themselves these questions virtually every day since they elected Barry in 1978.

A Mississippi sharecropper's son with a master's degree in chemistry, Barry was among the most important voices of the 1960s civil rights campaign, a founder and first national chairman of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and prime mover in the Free D.C. Movement, one of the militant, dashiki-clad symbols of an era. Then, as now, he held special appeal for the poor and the elderly; then, as now, D.C.'s affluent black Establishment was unimpressed, finding his street language especially vulgar. A 'Bama, they call him behind his back--low born, country bumpkin, hick.

Barry has never been a low-profile politician. He can't stay out of the news for his life--whether he's getting caught in the Caribbean with a woman not his wife, or in a sleazy topless bar in downtown D.C. where cocaine was allegedly sold openly.

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