When headline-grabbing, consummate comeback campaigner, and current DC councilman Marion Barry schedules a book talk in Washington, you can be sure it won't be your normal everyday literary presentation.
Such was the case recently when Barry appeared at the National Press Club to discuss his new book Mayor for Life: The Incredible Story of Marion Barry, Jr.
After arriving 25 minutes late, Barry delivered an engaging 1-hour performance that was part book talk, part political diatribe, part DC campaign rally, and part call-and-response religious revival.
"A lot has been written about Marion Barry," the former mayor said to a room crowded with mostly his supporters. "These stories were about the what of my life, not the who of my life. This is about the who of my life. I tell it all; the good, the bad, and the ugly."
Barry wasted little time addressing the infamous incident that made him a national figure. In 1990, the then-mayor was arrested as part of a sting investigation by the FBI and caught allegedly smoking crack cocaine in a Washington hotel room. The videotaped arrest produced the memorable phrase "bitch set me up."
After a 6-month stint in federal prison, Barry—the "mayor for life" who served from 1979 to 1991—returned briefly to the private life. But in 1994 he was again elected by city residents to a four-year term as mayor. Now 78, he is serving as a member of the city council.
"My life didn't start at the Vista (Hotel). It didn't end at the Vista Hotel. That's just a small sliver. It happened 24 years ago," Barry said. "I apologized for what I did. This country is a country of 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th chances. We have and still have a few Barry haters. They can't find anything good. But there's always something good".
Barry said his parents were poor sharecroppers in the South. He said he learned the idea of perseverance from his mother. "She would take care of (white) people's kids and she was told she would have to come in the back door. She said 'If I'm good enough to take care of your kids, I guess I'm good enough to come in the front door,'" the ex-mayor said, eliciting a chorus of "yes, Lord" and "you tell it, Mr. Mayor" from many in the crowd.
From his birth to his days as a student Civil Rights leader to his current term on City Council, race has played a central role in his life, Barry noted. "Race is a factor in everything that happens in DC," he said. Barry said that he is proud of the fact that he has helped young people get employment in the district and led the charge for more black businesses and workers.
In fact, he believes that his push for more power for African-Americans was at the root of his targeting by the FBI. "I had a problem with the FBI in the Civil Rights Movement. We all did. But my real problems in DC started when I began shifting funds to the minority community," Barry contended.
The former mayor has never been shy about touting his own accomplishments. "I've run 13 races and only lost 1. The district was in bad shape (when I first took office) but look at it now. It took a lot of vision, a lot of work, and a lot of tenacity. When you look at the big picture of Washington DC, I painted a large portion of that picture. There is not 3 persons here tonight who was not affected by Marion Barry."
In 1994, running under the slogan "He may not be perfect but he's perfect for DC," Barry won back his mayor's job, garnering 47 percent of the vote. He said he never doubted his re-election. "In the Safeway (supermarket) I couldn't get out of there is less than 2 hours. Everybody wanted to tell me their problems. The naysayers are going to criticize, but I love this community and they love me back," he said.
Barry said that in addition to trying to set his personal record straight, he hoped his book would inspire others to overcome their troubles. "It's about hope and help," he said. "God blessed me to come back and serve the community. I want my life to be a lesson, particularly the drug situation. As long as I satisfy the people of DC, then they (the Barry haters) can write whatever they want about me. But I want people to know if Marion Barry can do it, you can do it, too."