D.C.'s Mayor Was Arrested for Smoking Crack 23 Years Ago

U.S. News brings you two selections from our archives on Marion Barry's Jan. 18, 1990, crack cocaine arrest.

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This frame from a black and white FBI videotape shows FBI agents reading Washington Mayor Marion Barry, second from right in suspenders, his rights after he allegedly smoked crack cocaine in a Washington hotel room, Jan. 18, 1990.
This frame from a black and white FBI videotape shows FBI agents reading Washington Mayor Marion Barry, second from right in suspenders, his rights after he allegedly smoked crack cocaine in a Washington hotel room, Jan. 18, 1990.

Friday marks the 23rd anniversary of then D.C. Mayor Marion Barry's arrest in an FBI sting operation for possession of crack cocaine.

As part of our blog Press Past, U.S. News brings you two selections from our archives relating to Barry's Jan. 18, 1990, arrest, which shocked the nation and produced the memorable phrase "b-tch set me up!"

After a six-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. Barry is now a member of the city council.

Barry pointed out this week to U.S. News that a deadlocked jury did not convict him of committing any crime on the night of the FBI sting. He also alleged that FBI agents provided him with a toxic substance during the operation as part of a plot to murder him.

[READ: Marion Barry: 'The FBI Tried to Kill Me']


These two stories originally appeared in the Feb. 5, 1990, issue of U.S. News & World Report.


Politicians, and Other Immortal Beings

By Stephen Budiansky

If it was Marion Barry's arrogance that finally landed him in handcuffs, it should not be forgotten that it was arrogance that landed him in the District of Columbia mayor's office in the first place. And therein lies a very basic ailment of politics. Only the supremely self-assured need apply. The same boundless belief in oneself that makes a person commit the unnatural act of running for office leads him to believe, once elected, that he is exempt from the natural rules of fate. How could Barry have believed he could go on for years defying the odds? Simple: That's what he did for a living. That's what all politicians do for a living.

Most of us don't presume to count on anything farther in the future than what we're having for dinner. Politicians matter-of-factly assume they are going to be President. A fellow law clerk remembers a young Franklin Roosevelt, fresh out of college, casually describing his career plans one day in 1907: "First, a seat in the State Assembly, then an appointment as assistant secretary of the Navy, and finally the governorship of New York." He had just enough modesty to stop short of claiming the Presidency outright, but added: "Anyone who is governor of New York has a good chance to be President with any luck." That his prediction came true (he was state senator, not a state assemblyman, but that's just a quibble) is not the amazing thing. The amazing thing is that he was so sure it would happen at all.

Egotism creates great leaders; it can also be their undoing. Mikhail Gorbachev boldly overthrows the existing order in Eastern Europe, all the while confidently denying the possibility that the tide of democracy and nationalism he unleashed could sweep him away, too. The revolution in Azerbaijan pierces the truth: Even a man as smart as Gorbachev can be so impressed by his own political accomplishments that he forgets he is mortal. In fact, when a politician disavows personal immortality, it is actually scored as an act of humility. The Sunday after Barry's arrest, he appeared in church to make what was to Barry, if no one else in the world, an extraordinary confession: "I've had to realize that God made Marion Barry the same as He made other people."

But, deep down, does he really believe it? In his heart does he hold visions of an amazing comeback? He would hardly be the first. There was, after all, James Michael Curley, who interrupted his term as mayor of Boston to spend six months in prison and was welcomed back by cheering crowds. The script is so familiar that years ago writer James Boyd codified it all in a series of rules. There's Rule 2 (If you must speak out, confess what is known, evade what is unknown, and cry.); Rule 8 (Set up a series of endorsements by prominent churchmen.); Rule 13 (From now on, never appear in public without your wife.), and Rule 6, perfected by Curley himself: Insist you were just helping the people. Curley, who once was in trouble for impersonating a friend at a civil-service exam, delivered a defense that is a classic of the genre: "A man came to my door seeking help. He needed a job. His children were hungry. But he couldn't pass the examination because he had no education. So I took that test for him and he got that job. And thereafter he held his head up among men and his family was nourished. And I want every citizen of Massachusetts to know that I would do the same for you!" Barry's version was not bad, either: "I spent so much time caring about and worrying about and doing for others, I've not worried about or cared enough about myself."

All of which is to keep the door open on Boyd's Rule 7: At the moment of deepest personal disgrace, announce for re-election. "The thought of one's constituency as a jury of last resort is a comforting one," explains Boyd. "After all, that's a jury he's always fooled in the past."


Myth and Reality in the Nation's Capital

By Donald Baer

The nation's capital is not always the sophisticated city it pretends to be. When the details of Mayor Marion Barry's arrest on drug charges unfolded two weeks ago, whites in Washington tended to believe that Barry got what he deserved, treating the news as good sport to pass time between the end of Redskins football season and a new session of Congress. Blacks, 70 percent of the District's 630,000 residents, took the news more personally. "He's the only mayor who would ever walk these streets out here," said Buck Fenwick, as he worked on a truck engine on Alabama Avenue in Southeast Washington, home to many of the city's 100,000 poor people.

Yet as its citizens reflect on Barry's demise, Washington is not, as some have suggested, riven by racial strife or dizzy from shock. White and black residents go about their business without rancor. For many, the morning drive-time radio Metro Traffic Report remains the most important dispatch of the day. Contrary to some press reports, the black community does not harbor widespread suspicions about "The Plan," an alleged conspiracy of whites to rid D.C. of its black leaders. "I haven't heard anybody say anything to blame white people," says Ophelia Jones, a waitress at the Florida Avenue Grill, where white professionals sit among black working-class patrons. Some people even see humor; as white journalists clamor for reactions, blacks are keeping a tally of how many friends turn up on television. As the initial shock turned into a deeper appreciation, people showed sympathy for Barry. But most echoed the sentiment of the song that a local rock station played over and over to the tune of the Grateful Dead hit "Casey Jones": "Trouble ahead. Trouble behind. What the hell did you have on your mind?"

Bad rep. The current trouble includes Washington's image as the "murder capital"—an all-too-convenient media example for the Bush administration's drug wars. The 437 District murders in 1989 did represent the highest per capita rate in the country. Yet some of the murders reflect deeper social problems that afflict much of America; one homicide last week followed a fight over a girl. Though it has taken a heavy toll on black youth, the drug violence, resulting partly from gangland battles, has been confined to a small section of town. For the most part, Washington is not a "city under siege."

It is a city of vast racial differences. The classic 1960s photograph of Third World squalor in the shadow of the shining Capitol dome revealed the gaps between America's promise and Washington's reality. Those differences have eased, but Barry's troubles underscore continuing problems. "By day, Washington is a multiracial city," says David Eaton, Barry's pastor at the All Souls Church. "But by night, it returns to segregation." The blacks who cross into the white world are still mostly clerical staff and service workers. Many of them cannot even take the sleek subway system home at night because it doesn't reach their neighborhoods yet. Washington has long had the most prosperous black middle class in America, although social interaction with whites is limited. In recent decades, the black version of white flight to neighboring suburbs has skimmed a growing proportion of newer members of the black middle class. The metropolitan area, including the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, has 81 ZIP-code zones in which the median income of black families exceeds the national median income of white families; only four of those zones are in the District itself. For blacks who stay, the jobless rate is four times the average for the city.

By contrast, the Washington area has the nation's highest household income—almost $ 50,000—and in the '80s, it enjoyed the fruits of annual double-digit increases in defense spending. Since Barry took office in 1978, business districts that were burned out during the 1968 riots have emerged as gleaming neighborhoods. Despite racial differences, prosperity exists on Wisconsin Avenue in the white section and Georgia Avenue in a black section, where the Sears, Roy Rogers restaurant and convenience store are arrayed in almost identical patterns. For years, residents have said that all Washington lacks is a major-league baseball team and a good delicatessen. Add more Chinese takeouts and foreign movie houses, and the tableau for many would be complete.

The problem of a poorly run municipal government is not so easy to fix. The latest annoyance is potholes that swallow entire lanes of roadway. Still, some services, such as garbage pickup, work like a charm, and others, notably the parking-violations bureau, work too well. The price, however, is a per capita tax burden that is 50 percent higher than the national average; taxes buy one city employe for every 13 residents, a higher proportion than even New York City's. Yet agencies such as public housing that affect blacks more than whites suffer from persistent mismanagement. And vital services for white and black alike, including the schools, absorb more money than the national average but return a below-average performance.

Barry's arrest may have an unexpected benefit. With so much attention now focused on D.C. issues, the scandal could help Washingtonians find a civic life that they often ignore. In fact, some worry that Jesse Jackson's possible candidacy for mayor might shift attention to his national agenda at the expense of local problems, including an economic slowdown influenced by decreased defense spending. Washington's moment to put its concerns ahead of those of the world may have arrived. Pastor Eaton realized as much after Barry's arrest, shelving a sermon on the Panama invasion in favor of a new homily called "A Sad Day." Out of such hard times, he told his congregation, come opportunities to grow.

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