Posted by: N.S. Palmer | June 26, 2011

A Political Tip from Marion Barry

Marion Barry, former mayor and current city councilman of Washington, DC. Photo:

By N.S. Palmer

Unless you’ve lived in Washington, D.C. as I have, you’ve probably never heard of Marion Barry. He was mayor of Washington from 1979 to 1991, and again from 1995 to 1999.

Now, you have to understand something about Washington. Its population divides neatly into two groups. The lower-class majority is mostly black, mostly struggling financially, and often living in poverty. The upper-class minority is mostly white, mostly affluent, and sometimes astonishingly rich.

The black majority loved Marion Barry. They elected him repeatedly as mayor and stood by him no matter what he did.

But the white power elite hated Barry. To them, he was the epitome of the “uppity black man.” He repeatedly challenged their authority and defended the interests of his black constituents. Even more infuriating, he failed to show white government officials the deference to which they felt entitled from blacks. Despite what you’ve heard, racism is alive and well, even among people who wear expensive suits and speak in politically-correct lingo.

So Barry was a thorn in the side of people with power. They tried for years to get rid of him. There were corruption investigations, embarrassing leaks to newspapers, and attempts by Congress to cripple the D.C. government in various ways. None of it worked.

One of the repeated allegations against Barry was that he used illegal drugs. Based on that allegation, his political foes demanded that he take monthly drug tests to prove his innocence.

And that’s when the crafty Barry demonstrated one of the classic tactics of political gamesmanship.

When asked by reporters if he would take a drug test, Barry replied that he already took drug tests regularly, every time he went to the doctor.

His answer was nonsense, of course. But that was its brilliance. It changed the subject. Now, people were no longer talking about whether or not Barry used drugs. Instead, they were talking about whether or not he knew the difference between giving a routine urine sample for a physical exam and giving a urine sample for a drug test. It threw his attackers completely off-message.

Others have used the tactic, of course. When the FBI, ATF, and military units made their final deadly assault on the Branch Davidian religious sect in Texas, they used tanks, flame throwers, poison gas, and automatic weapons. They also used loudspeakers that blared “This is not an attack.” When President Obama wanted to continue his unprovoked military attacks against Libya, he claimed that the U.S. was not engaged in “hostilities” and he could continue the attacks without Congressional authorization. In both cases, the claims were nonsense, but they had the desired effect of confusing the situation.

The feds finally got Marion Barry, of course. They investigated him thoroughly, just as right-wing operatives recently profiled Rep. Anthony Weiner, and laid a trap based on his known weaknesses.

In 1990, they lured Barry to a hotel room and videotaped him using cocaine. FBI agents then burst in and arrested him. He went to prison for six months.

The D.C. black majority had the last laugh. In an obvious gesture of defiance to the federal power establishment, they re-elected Barry as mayor in 1995.

Copyright 2011 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL ( are included.

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