Populist Without a Pulpit (2024)

You know you're at Player's Lounge in Southeast Washington when you see the yellow sign over the door: ribs and chicken on a grill. Inside, the regulars sit at the bar and mind-read each other's lunch orders. Moments later, the windowless front door opens. A blast of sunlight and traffic noise bursts in as one man holds the door for another.

"Hey, whassup?" says the man who strolls in. His tall silhouette is familiar. It's the head shape and the hair--full on the sides, low on top. He is Marion Shepilov Barry Jr., slimmed by illness and exercise, lightened by shrugging off the burden of public life.

He walks in, pressing flesh. Folks are glad to see him. He's still got that thing going on, what former mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly calls his "Shaft" thing. The walk. The look. The easy charm. Sometimes the regulars give him a standing O. No lie.


He slides into a booth and digs into a plate of liver and onions, served with a little pitcher of iced tea. It all sits on a red vinyl place mat, the kind that sticks to your forearm when you reach for your fork. Doesn't matter what you order here--every single item on the wipe-off menu board is delicious: greens and mashed potatoes and meatloaf dense enough to have its own atomic number. It's cool and dark inside. It's also quiet, until owner Georgene Thompson switches on some music.

Marvin Gaye's falsetto kicks in. It's "Trouble Man":

I know some places

And I see some faces,

I've got the connections,

They dig my directions

Barry pauses between bites of his squash and cabbage, and points a knife toward a speaker. He smiles.

"Love this song," he says.

It could still be 1979 here, Barry's first year as mayor, when he was young and handsome and full of righteousness. Now, both this place and this man show 21 years of wear. And both seem somewhat out of their time: Barry is to Anthony Williams as Player's Lounge is to Applebee's. Yet folks still stream into Player's at lunchtime as surely as they tried to get Barry to run for D.C. Council this summer.


Another wedge of white sunlight crosses the floor. This time it's Cora Masters Barry gliding through the door with Rodney, her personal trainer, an inverted pyramid with a megawatt smile and a vise-grip handshake. She is a shorter, flowing figure in a green batik dress. But she wears invisible armor, which she drapes over her husband. It has been said that Marion is good with people, and that Cora is good about people. The Barrys have just spent the morning with an unfamiliar reporter in their home and are in a state that is best described as guarded ease.

Barry finishes lunch. He and his wife walk out onto the hot, cracked concrete that lines Anacostia's Martin Luther King Avenue, across from St. Elizabeths Hospital. In the 30 yards between the restaurant and Barry's comfortable blue '92 Chrysler New Yorker with the tinted windows, a dozen folks greet the former mayor. A few men stand around a table on the parking lot next door. They sell sunglasses, T-shirts and scented oils.

A young man walks out from behind the table. He is Kevin Johnson, 21. He lists his address as "homeless."


"Mr. Barry, can I ask you a question?"


"Are you gonna get back into politics and help the people of Ward 8?"

"Well, I don't think so," Barry says. A pause. "You think I should?"

"I got my first summer job from you," Johnson says.

Marion Barry Jr. may no longer be mayor of Washington, D.C. He is, however, forever the mayor of Player's Lounge and surrounding territories.

Exit the Stage

On Jan. 2, 1999, Barry hugged Williams on a dais at the Ronald Reagan International Trade Center and handed over the city. Mayor Barry became Citizen Barry.

With Barry's exit from public life, an epoch closed for us--and for him.

He has lived most of that time out of the media spotlight. Except, of course, for the times when he sought it, such as in June, when he teased a challenge to Harold Brazil for his at-large council seat. Mostly, though, ex-Hizzoner has been closemouthed about his life over the past 18 months. It has been his sole foray into private life (not including six months in prison in 1991-92, and that's not exactly private) since he was elected to the D.C. School Board in 1971.


After Barry announced on June 30 that he would not seek a council seat, he summoned the media to his gated home on Raleigh Street SE for a production line of sound-bite interviews. Otherwise, he's given an occasional hour or two to local columnists deemed sympathetic. But that's been it.

Just what is he doing these days, anyway?

Campaigning for George W. Bush?

Selling plutonium to the North Koreans?

Or, as Barry says, he just wants to go about his life like a regular guy?

Is that possible?

Tending the Flowers

Barry's two-story bungalow faces parkland, and the broad front porch is filled with carefully tended plants, prospering on a sultry summer morning.

The former mayor opens his front door and stands there in bare feet, pressed olive slacks and a white dress shirt. He is affixing cuff links to the French cuffs, which bear tiny monograms. He is polite if not effusive, and directs his visitors to the living room, which is filled with African art. A window-unit air conditioner groans. He heads back upstairs.


A few moments later, Barry walks down the dark wood staircase, assembled, wearing a tightly knotted tie with olive highlights, a Rolex and brown alligator shoes--he is nicely detailed, but not flashy. He is cleanshaven, and looks pretty good for a man who, just a week earlier, underwent follow-up surgery for prostate cancer, diagnosed in 1995. His voice is quieter now, and a little raspy, but still has that familiar thickness. It still rises and falls like a preacher's, albeit a slightly weary one.

He gives a quick house tour. Over here in the family room are the pictures. His people are on the left side of one wall, Cora's on the right. Of note is a black-and-white studio portrait of Marion, 5 or 6 years old, with his mother in Tennessee. Little Marion smiles broadly under a fedora. There are bits of mayoral memorabilia about, but surprisingly few for a four-term city exec.

On to the back porch, which he and Cora had glassed in when they bought the house in 1993. (They didn't buy until he won the Ward 8 seat in 1992's D.C. Council election.) A dozen small to medium-size green plants fill the room--a couple of dieffenbachia, some wandering Jews--giving it the feel of a conservatory framed by African wall hangings.


"I take care of my flowers. I watch them grow," says Barry, sounding a bit like a deposed Last Emperor, contentedly puttering around his little garden.

"This is a good life," he says.

He settles into a formal chair in his living room, and leans forward to speak, locking eyes with his visitor. After a few moments of chitchat, Cora joins him. Almost immediately, they begin the husband-and-wife-thing. They have been married for six years, but have been friends for more than twice that. She sits in on this interview at his request, she says.

And she lets him get away with exactly zero.

"I can go every day and have a ball with life, which I'm having, and not be involved in any news reporting," Barry says. "Except the media wants to know what I'm doing."

"But that's not how it works," counters Cora. "You know who you are. You will never, ever be a completely private citizen. That's just part of the bargain of being Marion Barry."


"I didn't make that bargain. I didn't know that," says Barry, quietly. "I've learned it."

Even before his visitor can say, "Oh, come on," Cora beats him to it.

"Come on," she says.

"I did not know that I could not come out of public office and have some peace and quiet without everything, not everything, but some things I do being blown up."

Cora stares at him, speechless, giving a look that could wilt corn on the stalk.

"I'm capable of being naive in some areas," he says, semi-defeated. "I'm very bright and smart and brilliant in some areas, but capable of being naive in others."

"Hmph," Cora hmphs.

On the Phone

It turns out that Barry's post-mayoral life is fairly quiet--at least compared with the three-ring circus it was while he was in office--though it still has its brushes with controversy and colorful characters.


The bulk of his livelihood comes from his $34,000 annual D.C. pension and his work as a consultant to New York City investment banking firm M.R. Beal & Co.--half a year's work for Beal last year added $50,000. As Washington changes politically and culturally, Barry has sought a way to stay relevant, and that has come from the connections he made as mayor.

He may no longer be the guy, but he's the guy who knows the guy.

Barry is a rainmaker for Beal and a dealmaker between African nations and U.S. government and business officials, sometimes working for himself, sometimes for a Chicago public relations firm called BSI International. He keeps a desk at the National Corrections and Rehabilitation Corp. on Connecticut Avenue, and occasionally "raps" with inmates. He has advised political candidates, though none in the District, he says.

"I know how to win elections," he says.

He is "delighted" that he has no fixed schedule. Much of his work for Beal can be done over his ever-present cell phone. When he travels for Beal, he does it alone--flying coach with no entourage, no bodyguards, no drivers. He lugs his baggage.

In D.C., his day may consist of a leisurely tennis match at Hains Point, a workout at the downtown YMCA, a manicure at a nail shop near the O Street Market. Perhaps he'll stop by Georgia Brown's for lunch, take his customary window table, and order his favorite off-the-menu item: sauteed chicken livers and onions. Sometimes he won't eat--he'll just duck in, see who's there and work the room. Occasionally he pops up at public functions--D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) chatted with him at the opening of the Columbia Heights Metro station last September. This past spring, he came to Howard University Law School and spent 2 1/2 hours talking to a municipal law class taught by his lawyer, Fred Cooke.

Around the same time, he let two Alice Deal Junior High students interview him for a class project on the city's 1968 riots. In the videotaped conversation, Barry directly addresses the camera, giving it the unfortunate look of a deposition. Beneath the instant image, however, is a smart, interesting lecture on the sociopolitical roots of the riots.

Barry stops by Player's Lounge on his way home a couple of nights a week and picks up baked chicken. The man who once called himself the "Night Owl" says he's home by 6:30 or 7 nowadays. Some evenings he goes to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Other nights, he'll call his son, Christopher, 20, a student at the University of the District of Columbia. Or maybe he and Cora will see a movie at Union Station; folks at the theaters in nearby Marlow Heights just talk too much during the films to suit his taste. On Sundays, the Barrys attend Union Temple Baptist in Southeast. The couple spend occasional weekends on Maryland's Eastern Shore or antiquing in Baltimore.

In January, Barry attended the first of a few seminars put on by the Landmark Forum, a personal growth organization. What goes on there?

"It's hard to describe," he says. "It's an opportunity for me to develop more tools in this toolbox of ours to live more fully."

Cora offers that it's "like est." Landmark Forum was, in fact, founded by est father Werner Erhard, and is considered by many a softer version of est, the controversial self-improvement seminar. Barry says the seminars have helped him, but they are "not for everyone."

The Landmark Forum's Web site describes the program thus:

"In The Landmark Forum, participants look at their beliefs, choices and actions, and, perhaps most importantly, what underlies who we are as human beings."

But if you think that Barry is spending all of his weekends in self-improvement seminars, think again.

In June, he and Cora went to New York City for the premiere of "Shaft" and hung out at the after-party with director John Singleton and stars Samuel L. Jackson and Vanessa Williams. "John did a good job," Barry says, "but I liked the original a little better."

Two weeks ago, he and Cora went to the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. Barry said he went to support his wife, who sat on voter registration panels.

Any good party invites?

"More than we know how to handle," Barry said, the day before he left.

And ever the tennis fans, the Barrys attended last year's U.S. Open tennis tournament and, says Cora--who recently opened a children's tennis center--were given "to Heaven and back" full-access passes by Richard Williams, father of sister sensations Venus and Serena.

Sounds like a pretty nice life.

Slowing Down

Except for the lingering effects of cancer.

Barry has twice made the news recently. First, when he announced that he would not challenge Brazil for his council seat. Then, in early July, when a female janitor at Baltimore-Washington International Airport charged that Barry exposed himself to her in a restroom. She filed a complaint, which means that, if the Anne Arundel County prosecutor presses the case, Barry must go before a judge and give his side of the story: that he'd just gotten off a flight from Chicago, was laden with luggage, and was quick-stepping to find the nearest bathroom. Prostate surgery can make bladder control tough and, even though the first bathroom he saw was closed for cleaning, Barry couldn't wait.

Prostate cancer is a diagnosis of multiple evils. As well as being potentially fatal, its treatment--removal of the prostate--often robs men of their virility. And it can even leave a man like Barry--once the walking symbol of political power, intellect and bravado--racing anxiously to the bathroom.

Eventually, he says, he's come to a "peace" with the cancer. But at first, "it was heavy."

That said, Barry calls his prognosis favorable. Regular PSA (prostate-specific antigen) tests show potential cancer cells in an acceptable range. Still, as anyone with the disease knows, it can flat out exhaust you. Cora looked around for her missing husband at a function recently, only to learn he'd worn down and gone home to bed. And though he denies he was too tired to run for office again, he suggests it in a half-dozen ways during a two-hour conversation.

"I've been working 60 to 70 hours a week for years," he says. "When I was a student at Fisk, I was doing grad work and work in the Movement at the same time. I was demonstrating and doing research until 3 o'clock in the morning, going 13, 14 hours a day. At any rate, I didn't realize how exhausted I was until I got out of it.

"It's like when you're in a storm--you don't always realize you're in a storm until you get out of it, and you say, 'Oh, man!' "

He says he commissioned no political polls but saw ones that others had done. They showed favorable ratings for him in Wards 4, 7 and 8, he says, which he translated into enough votes to beat Brazil.

"I know this town better probably than anyone else politically," he says.

There may be many reasons why Barry chose not to run: There is the fatigue of campaigning and then governing. There is the potential of a Republican White House and Congress that could apply the fiscal screws to the District.

And the city's political landscape is changing--it's Tony's world now, and the people want technocrats, not demagogues.

Or so goes the conventional wisdom.

On a recent sunny Saturday, Mayor Williams has donned a madras shirt and St. Louis Cardinals ball cap and is doing some rubber-meets-the-road mayoring at a block party in the predominantly black, middle-class 16th Street Heights NW.

On the topic of elections, Williams ruminates about Barry's preempted run for the council. But not without considerable reflection and ve-ry . . . care-ful . . . word . . . choice.

"He is an able campaigner and a tremendous politician, and it would have been a tremendous race," says Williams. "But it's not at all clear that he would have won."

A New Mission

And then there is Barry's reason for not running.

In April, while attending a conference on the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee at Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C., Barry ran into his old friend Lawrence Guyot Jr., a longtime D.C. activist. Barry was considering a run for council then, Guyot reports. But he had something else on his mind, as well: violence.

Sometime around then, Barry says, he had a half-waking dream in which he saw himself talking to young people and urging them to stop killing each other.

He had a dream?

"This may sound really hokeypokey," he begins, looking down modestly and speaking in his best aw-shucks voice.

But he says he's serious: The Easter Monday shooting at the National Zoo, which left seven children injured, cemented his decision. Instead of running for office, he would do what he could to stop the violence in his city.

His plan, which he will unveil in September, is threefold: First, assemble a group of 30 to 40 "listeners and learners" who will talk to children, counselors, perps, victims, anyone they can think of who's been associated with violence. They will ask this question: How could it have been avoided?

Then, with e-mail and a Web site, and nonprofit fundraising status, he will organize the data he's gleaned. Finally, he will "mobilize," which will mean public information programs and political action. Barry says he found himself at a fork in the road this summer. One road led back toward public office. The other led toward the anti-violence campaign.

Those are the details for now--he doesn't want to give too much away yet. And maybe he's got the street cred to pull it off.

One night about 9 recently, Barry was washing his car in his driveway. He heard a commotion up the street and opened his gate just a little, to peek around the corner. He saw two men running toward each other, one with a knife, both cursing.

Then, one of the men saw Barry. They stopped and turned to him.

"Mr. Barry, this [expletive] just hit me!" one said.

Barry responded:

"Man, why can't you all just chill out?"

And chill they did, Barry reports.

The Rainmaker

And there are those who believe Barry still has boardroom credibility as well. This is what he does for Beal.

"Every investment banking organization has people like myself who are called marketers, I guess," Barry explains. "Most do the same thing, so the big difference is relationships, how people feel about your ability to get things done."

Beal is among the financial world's largest minority-owned investment banking firms, and acts as a debt manager when governments sell bonds. Barry signed on with Beal in May 1999. Beal had been active in school and housing projects, but Barry says he steered the firm into the airport business.

Last fall Barry helped Beal get a piece of a $500 million debt offering by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority for improvements at Reagan National and Dulles airports. Barry was the middleman between Beal and the MWAA. (As mayor, Barry helped create the authority and appointed three of its 13 board members.) He dealt several times with Lynn Hampton, the MWAA's chief financial officer, on the phone and in person, over the course of a couple of months. She says he was "very attentive."

"He was very charismatic when he came to our meetings," says Hampton. "I remember commenting to somebody that if he'd chosen the profession of investment banking instead of politics, he would be a very rich man."

Barry pitched Beal to Kansas City International Airport last September at a conference in New York, reports an official in Kansas. Barry says he's also worked with George Washington University on a financing issue, as well as on a project at Denver International Airport.

Bernard Beal, chief operating officer of Beal & Co., says Barry "brings an understanding of how the public sector works from a public-sector executive's perspective. I rely on him for advice and counsel."

Does Barry like the work?

"Oh, it's not as exciting as being in public office," he says. "But I know how to do it, and I do it very well."

This is perhaps another reason Barry has shunned media attention.

"Investment bankers do not like being in controversies," he says. "They do not like to be in the newspaper. It's a very quiet business."

An Interest in Africa

But it's nearly impossible to lower a cone of silence over you if you're Marion Barry. Noise, controversy, heat just find you, like sparks find tinder.

For the past several years, Barry has nurtured a passion for Africa, and has stoked his credentials by showing up in the right places.

For instance, at a summit in Ghana last year, he attended a ceremony linking humanitarian Rev. Leon Sullivan and the Overseas Private Investment Corp.--a federal agency that assists U.S. businesses investing overseas. In 1997 he attended a world conference of mayors in Nigeria. In May 1999 he returned to the former dictatorship as a guest at the inauguration of democratically elected President Olusegun Obasanjo in Abuja, traveling on that country's nickel.

About a year ago, Barry formed an Africa consulting firm, Visions Consulting, and he and Cora returned from seven days in Guinea on Sunday. There, he met with government ministers to see what opportunities may exist there for U.S. businesses.

"He wants to leverage contacts and do business with Africa," says Melvin Foote, president of the nonprofit lobbying group Constituency for Africa and the for-profit consultants Advice on Africa. Nothing unusual there--rainmaking and dealmaking is a well-trod path for former politicians.

You just have to watch your back, Foote had told Barry.

"[Barry] will ask me, 'What do you think about such and such?' " says Foote. "If he asks about 'X' country, I might say, 'It's a little tough, you've got to watch corruption.' "

Particularly with Nigeria's neighbor Cameroon, which is ranked as the most corrupt African nation by Transparency International, a watchdog organization.

Which is one of the nations Barry's been dealing with most recently.

Early this year, officials from Cameroon scheduled a visit to the United States, with the hopes of urging American businesses to invest in the tiny nation, nestled in the crook of Africa. The government was spoiling for U.S. contacts. They chose two public relations firms, Alexis International in Washington, and BSI International, a Chicago PR firm that had worked with Cameroon in the past. And here's where Barry enters the picture.

BSI is the business arm of the African Hebrew Israelite movement, a religious sect that believes that blacks are the original descendents of Israel. BSI is headed by Prince Asiel Ben Israel (formerly Warren Brown), whom Barry met two decades ago. In 1986, Israel was convicted in U.S. District Court of trafficking stolen airline tickets and other racketeering crimes. The convictions were overturned, and when prosecutors sought a retrial, Ben Israel pleaded to a lesser charge.

"I don't see how that's relevant, that was so long ago," Barry says. Indeed, there is no evidence of criminal activity associated with the sect since. BSI declined to comment.

Last spring, Ben Israel called Barry and "asked me to be of some assistance here in Washington" during the Cameroonian prime minister's visit in April, he says.

Race can play a prominent role in liaisons between the United States and Africa. Africa often flies below U.S. political radar. Toward reversing that, Barry sees a blueprint in the way American Jews have effectively lobbied Capitol Hill for Israel.

"Black folks can organize the black constituency here," Barry says. "White firms," with some exceptions, "don't know how to do it."

Barry scheduled meetings between the Cameroonians and the U.S. Agency for International Development and accompanied them to meet the Congressional Black Caucus. Barry also sat in on a 20-minute meeting at the Madison Hotel between the prime minister, another representative of BSI and Rosa Whitaker, the assistant U.S. trade representative for Africa.

Whitaker, phoning from a business development meeting in Botswana, says she briefed the Cameroonians on U.S. policy toward Africa.

As for Barry, whom Whitaker has known since she was 14: "I would assume [the Cameroonians] respect his ability to build constituencies and coalitions. He's built his career on that."

The Cameroonians also got a briefing from U.S. Deputy Commerce Secretary Robert Mallett, the city administrator under Mayor Kelly. About halfway through the meeting, Barry walked in.

"Bob was not very positive," Barry recalls, citing the U.S. concern with Cameroon's reputation for corruption and inefficiency.

Barry says that after the meeting, he followed the Cameroonians out into the hall and tried to reassure them. For all this work, Barry says he was not paid by BSI. But he elaborates no further.

"I'm a private citizen now," Barry says, with a glint of pleasure in his eye. "I'm under no obligation to tell anyone but the IRS what I make."

The Next Chapter Barry has been many things--a hero and a boogeyman, an inspiration and an addict, a dealmaker and a dealkiller. At his core, though, he is an archetypal American politician--the populist.

The details of the populist's story vary, but they tend to follow a similar arc: lives of great success and great failure, much of it self-inflicted. Huey Long, the flamboyant autocrat of 1920s Louisiana, comes to mind. His made a terrific story--Robert Penn Warren's novel "All the King's Men."

Lately, Barry has been thinking about writing his own story.

Clearly, there is an exceptional book in Barry's life--part drama, part history, part comedy, part tragedy.

What Barry needs now is the will to lay bare all of his life--episodes both heroic and humiliating. And he needs time. Though he says the prostate cancer is licked, he knows cancer patients always live in some trepidation.

Most prosaically, though, he needs a book deal. So he assembles proposals for publishing houses and shops for his Boswell. He has a couple of writers in mind, though he won't say whom. One of the sticking points so far has been money.

"I've talked to a half-dozen writers before, and most all of them want 50 percent," Barry says. "The agent gets 15 percent and that leaves 35 percent for me. I don't want to do that."

He pauses. It may sound like it's just about money, but it's not. He points to his chest with both index fingers:

"It's my story."

Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.

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