The Confusing Lives of Marion Barry

Why a new HBO documentary brings us no closer to figuring out Chocolate City's infamous mayor.

Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for HBO
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for HBO

“How the hell did Marion Barry get his job back? Smoked crack and got his job back. How the hell did that happen? I mean, if you get caught smoking crack at McDonald’s, you can’t get your job back. … Marion Barry! Come on, how you gonna tell little kids not to get high when the mayor’s on crack?”

—Chris Rock


Say what you will about Marion Barry—and let’s face it, there are many, many things that one could say about the Chocolate City’s most famous politico—one thing is clear: When it comes to achieving iconic status among American mayors, Barry is right up there, at the very top.

This is no small achievement, given that the three-time mayor/current D.C. Council member has had so much competition: Just this year alone, we’ve had Portland’s first openly gay mayor caught up in a sex scandal involving a minor, and the Jersey mayors doing dirt with the rabbis. If you go back a century or so, there’s New York’s infamous Tammany Hall, by which many a mayor strong-armed his way to real power, and Boston’s Victorian era mayor, James Michael Curley. There’s Chicago’s original Daley Machine; Atlanta’s convicted mayor, Bill Campbell, doing time for tax evasion, and, let us not forget, Detroit’s Kwame Kilpatrick, who demonstrated what sexting is all about.