Bill Clinton equals … Marion Barry?
It’s primary day in the District of Columbia, and that means it’s time for Washingtonians to say our (tearless) goodbyes to Mayor Marion Barry. By tonight, someone–probably Anthony Williams–will have been anointed the Democratic nominee and mayor-presumptive, and Barry, the lamest of lame ducks, can begin packing his bags, his four-year term of redemption complete.
Thinking about Barry reminded me of Washington’s other great, disgraced Southern politician and of the eerie similarities between them, from their politics to their pathologies. Barry and Clinton are at their best in public: They are both natural pols, famously good with names and faces, brilliant at building campaign organizations, and obsessed with election strategy. They are capable of tremendous empathy and charm and inspire fervent loyalty in the objects of their affection. The flip side of this is that they are congenital liars who are superb at telling audiences exactly what they want to hear. (Just as Clinton seduced both old-time liberals and conservative Democrats, so too did Barry persuade both white good-government types and poor blacks that he represented their disparate interests.)
Barry once described his politics as “situationist.” It is an apt description of Clinton’s, too. Marion and Bill happily reverse themselves for political gain. Both were first elected by broad Democratic coalitions, governed more conservatively than they campaigned, then fell back on a solid left-wing base when they got in trouble. They treat their enemies better than they do their friends: Barry famously sucks up to those who hate him, just as Clinton turns to disloyalist Dick Morris in his time of need.
They are hedonists and risk takers. Clinton’s skulking pursuit of self-indulgence described in the Starr report is creepily similar to Barry’s quests for drugs, alcohol, and women in the late ‘80s. Neither man was deterred by the fear of being caught: He counted on teams of loyal flunkies to clean up messes. This janitorial work succeeded for years, despite countless rumors.
Both are loathed far more than their political actions merit. They inspire implacable, visceral fury in their enemies, who cannot fathom how such corrupt and disgusting men could get away with so much for so long. A zealous conservative prosecutor (Joseph DiGenova) put Barry in his sights and subjected him to years of scrutiny till he caught him on tape. Clinton too has his conservative prosecutor and his own fatal tapes. Barry became incapable of governing after his drug arrest; Clinton’s effectiveness as president is now in doubt.
Like Barry, Clinton embarked on a program of contrition after getting caught, making explicitly religious appeals for forgiveness and seeking shelter in the redemptive Southern church. Barry consulted spiritual counselors; Clinton has just adopted a couple of ministers of his own. Skepticism greeted their contrition: Many believed (not without reason) that they sought forgiveness only because they got caught, not because they were truly sorry. Barry relied on a core black constituency that forgave him when other Washingtonians wouldn’t. Clinton is finding his strongest backing among African-Americans.
There is one significant difference between Barry and Clinton. Barry, allegedly cleansed and reborn, was able to return to politics and win re-election as mayor. The 22nd Amendment bars a redemptive third presidential term for Clinton. But it doesn’t bar him from a redemptive term somewhere else, such as, say, in the D.C. mayor’s office.
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