This is a tale of fallen heroes, lost boys who once were icons to rising generations, now old men now shuffling toward the bitter denouement of public scorn and collegial rejection.
(Photo from DC Public Library, Star Collection, Washington Post)
I remember the day that Marion Barry was shot. I was working as a clinical legal intern in the office of DC Councilmember Julius Hobson. I was on my way to work when my clinical supervisor called me with terrible news: a terrorist group known as the Hanafi Muslims had taken over the District Building and other buildings in DC. People on the scene reported gunfire and casualties. For an anxious few hours we didn’t know if then-Councilmember Barry would live.
At that time, 1977, Marion Barry was revered as a civil rights hero and great champion of Home Rule for the District of Columbia. He had come to DC in the late 1960’s as a true civil rights activist, founding the local chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and leading many demonstrations for racial equality. He was elected as one of the first members of the new DC Council when Home Rule became a reality in 1974. He succeeded Walter Washington as DC’s second mayor, and electors sent him back to the mayor’s office three more times.
But Barry’s life has been like a classic Greek tragedy, the story of a flawed hero who could not resist temptation. His escapades with drugs and shady ladies landed him in jail during his third term as mayor. His tax avoidance problems gained headlines and the notice of the U.S. Attorney. Despite his misconduct, the residents of Ward 8 continued to have faith in their hero, repeatedly electing him to represent them on the DC Council.
Finally, in the last few weeks, a sordid tale emerged of a city contract awarded to Barry’s latest girlfriend with a kickback to him. Yesterday, the DC Council took the unprecedented action of censuring Barry and stripping him of his chairmanship while calling on the U.S. Attorney to investigate further.
Marion Barry should now do the right thing and resign from the DC Council. Over the years, his actions not only tarnished his once-golden reputation as a civil rights champion, they also damaged the reputation of the city, undermining DC’s ability to gain full political rights. Barry’s misdeeds have continued to stoke the twisted view that citizens of this city cannot govern themselves. That view is utterly wrong, but Barry’s continued presence on the DC Council is a lightening rod for opposition to DC voting rights and home rule. Barry’s last act as a civil rights champion should be to liberate the city from the burden of his own reputation.
I remember the day that Jim Bunning pitched that perfect game. June 21, 1964. Father’s Day. I was in the backseat of our old Plymouth station wagon with my brothers. Mom and Dad up front. Dad was driving and smoking his Kents. We were on our way to a country fair. It was so hot, my brothers were squabbling, and Dad kept telling us to settle down. The radio was blaring a baseball game, as usual. Our beloved Phillies were playing the hated Mets. Bunning was pitching, and Dad was paying very close attention even as we cruised down country lanes. When we got to the fair, we stopped, but stayed in the car listening to the game, and then great cheers erupted. Dad exclaimed that Bunning just pitched a perfect game. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but it sure made Dad happy. We had a great time at the fair.
Jim Bunning became the toast of the town that year as Philadelphia reveled in the rare feat of the perfect game — a game where the pitcher gets every single opposing batter out without anyone reaching base. A perfect game is one of the hardest achievements of all sports because so many players have a chance to ruin the moment.
The collapse of the Phillies in the waning moments of that year’s pennant race is the stuff of legend, but Bunning continued to pitch well and went on to the Baseball Hall of Fame. He retired to his native Kentucky and commenced his political career first in local politics, then winning seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and then the U.S. Senate.
Sadly, now in the waning years of his Senate career, Bunning has become a cariacature. His increasingly erratic conduct has caused concern even among right-wing Republicans. His most recent actions blocking passage of the jobs bill resulted in the furloughing of thousands of federal workers. While he relented yesterday, his opposition caused grave concern among members of his own party while continuing to fuel the perception that he is simply an obstructionist.
Bunning has already announced that he will not seek another Senate term, much to the relief of his colleagues. We can only hope that he will spend his remaining days in the Senate polishing his baseball mementoes and staying away from serious assaults on the legislative process.
Marion Barry and Jim Bunning, opposites on the far edges of the political spectrum, share one thing in common: they had bright and vigorous youths, earning achievements that made them heroes in their communities. Unfortunately, both men have become sad examples of what happens when celebrity becomes impervious to common sense. They can recover some sliver of their old lustre by doing the right thing now and taking themselves out of the game. Their fans and constituents will love them again once they do the right thing.