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National

Former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry Dies

TESS VIGELAND, HOST:

Former Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry has died. He was 78 years old. Barry served four terms as mayor, but was perhaps most famous for a 1990 videotape in which he was seen smoking crack cocaine. He spent six months in prison and then was reelected. Clarence Page is a D.C.-based columnist for the Chicago Tribune and covered the former mayor for years, and he joins us now. Welcome.

CLARENCE PAGE: Thank you. Happy to be here.

VIGELAND: Marion Barry was first elected as mayor in 1978 after a career as a leader in the civil rights movement. What was his appeal?

PAGE: He had the appeal of a man-of-the-people sort of candidate. Before he entered politics proper, he was the first national director of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC - a very important organization in the Freedom Ride period of the civil rights movement. And he made that transition over to establishment politics by way of grassroots community organizing, and he kept that with him right into his mayoral years. I think he's best remembered in the district for his summer jobs program. A lot of people will tell you, now, I got my first job through Marion Barry's summer job program. And that was the way he endeared himself to the public, despite his occasional flamboyant excesses.

VIGELAND: Well, in later years, his problems with drug abuse and alcohol abuse seemed to mirror the corruption and crime facing Washington, D.C. How much responsibility did he bear for the decline of the city?

PAGE: Well, you could say the city was in trouble before he became mayor. But he certainly was overseeing the city's financial situation, as well as its other governing situations. And as such, the city fell into tremendous financial troubles. But at the same time, though, he was very successful in working with the business community. And in certain parts of town, like between the Watergate Hotel in Georgetown, you look along the riverfront there - and the business community owes him quite a debt for a lot of that situation. So you had, you know, good news and bad news in the Barry years.

VIGELAND: What would you say is the legacy of Mayor Marion Barry?

PAGE: I think he will be remembered most - besides the FBI sting - besides that - he'll be remembered locally, certainly, as a mayor who did help the city make its transition to home rule. I think he'll also be remembered as someone who may well have been a more colorful figure, as far as his behavior and his public image, than will be allowed as the Twitter age comes upon us more and more. It's a mixed picture, but I think the fact that he is viewed with such loyalty and respect by some local people who were helped by the summer jobs program or by public jobs that opened up to African-Americans after being closed off to them for decades - the fact that he was, in that sense, a pioneer - will give him that mixed legacy of being both the hero and the rogue at the same time.

VIGELAND: Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune based in Washington, D.C. Clarence, thank you for taking the time today.

PAGE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.