When a certain long-time politician died last month (November 23), at the age of 78, his death was covered in the media with what seemed like a mixture of mild disgust and smirking pity, as if his passing were the culmination of a notorious carnival act, or a prolonged and raucous con game, rather than a fairly distinguished, if admittedly flawed, political career.
Given this politician’s well-publicized and scrutinized antics, it’s no surprise that his background would strike us as wildly incongruous. For one thing, as an impoverished child (whose father died when the boy was only four years old) growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, he nonetheless reached the level of Eagle Scout, the highest Boy Scout rank attainable. Although I was never a Boy Scout, the Scouts I had as friends made it clear that becoming an Eagle was no small achievement. It took dedication, resourcefulness and talent.
For another thing, this former politician was a brilliant science student. Indeed, he held a master’s degree in Organic Chemistry from Fisk University, and had entered the doctoral program at the University of Kansas (and later at the University of Tennessee, on a fellowship) to work on his Ph.D. before deciding to drop out of the program to spend full-time on political activism.
There are lots of ways to bullshit your way through college, but choosing to be an organic chemistry major ain’t one of them. You can’t fake your way through the first chapter of an organic chemistry textbook, much less the whole class. Even to pass the introductory course in o-chem is a notable achievement (my dentist said it was the hardest class he ever took). To choose it as your major puts you in a whole other category.
Of course, the former Eagle Scout and chemistry major of whom I’m speaking is the redoubtable Marion Barry, best known as the second popularly-elected mayor of Washington D.C. (1979-1991), as well as its fourth (1995-1999), after the District was awarded “home rule” in 1973, and the first chairman of SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee).
While no one is going to pretend that Barry was a gifted administrator, no one can deny that the problems he faced running Washington D.C. were staggering. Moreover, no one can deny the fact that the white establishment wanted to see this wildly popular, charismatic black leader (the vile term “uppity nigger” comes to mind) brought to his knees. All one has to do is revisit Barry’s outlandish 1990 drug arrest to see evidence of just how badly they wanted to see him nailed.
In January of 1990, Barry met Rasheeda Moore, a former girlfriend (Barry was married four times), in a room at the Vista Hotel in D.C., in order to have reunion sex, not knowing that the treasonous Moore had already cut a deal with the FBI to get Barry to smoke freebase cocaine with her, and to do it on camera. In the incriminating tape, you see Barry trying to get the woman to go to bed with him, and the woman demurring, insisting (yes!) that they first use coke.
Reluctantly, Barry agreed to imbibe, and of course, as soon as they hit the cocaine, the FBI burst into the room and arrested him. One can only imagine the glee with which these agents were finally able nail the infamous Marion Barry. When I first saw that tape in 1990, my initial reaction was, if that isn’t “entrapment,” what is it? When I re-saw the tape in November, twenty-four years later, that was still my initial reaction.
David Macaray, an LA playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor,” 2nd edition), is a former union rep. He can be reached at email@example.com