06/23/2014 09:25 am ET Updated Jun 23, 2014

A Strange, Confusing Evening With Marion Barry

WASHINGTON - On Friday evening, Marion Barry sat with a group of journalists and delivered a stirring defense of yogurt.

"Yogurt is more healthy than a lot of things," Barry, the four-time mayor of Washington, D.C., civil rights icon, Ward 8 council member and avatar for dysfunctional local governments everywhere, said. "As is cottage cheese. The best kind of yogurt is organic, without all these fillers and stuff."

Technically, a reporter had asked about a well-publicized tax on yoga studios under consideration in the D.C. Council, not a tax on yogurt. But Barry had misheard the question -- perhaps due to the noisy singles mixer at the other end of LOOK, the posh K Street restaurant lounge where the Q&A was being held.

Regardless, Barry was staunchly opposed to the non-existent tax on Washington's Chobani supply, calling the D.C. Council "crazy" for considering the measure.

"They're grasping at straws," Barry railed in his gravelly southern drawl. "I'm not sure who proposed it, I think Jack proposed it." The reference, presumably, was to Ward 2 Councilman Jack Evans -- who, it should be said, has not proposed a levy on fermented milk.

Barry was at LOOK to promote his memoir, Mayor for Life, co-written with novelist Omar Tyree and a work of autobiography no less less scattershot and untethered than Barry's performance that evening.

And what a performance it was. Over the course of several hours, Barry weighed in on everything from his Twitter account ("I put serious stuff on, and I put fun things on"), D.C.'s gentrification ("Most black people hate it"), the media ("Mean, so mean"), sugar ("The worst chemical in the world"), cocaine ("Don't try it"), and his favorite "Game of Thrones" character ("I like the midget; he's an overcomer").

Joining The Huffington Post was a group of journalists just as eclectic as the man himself. On hand were reporters from Time Magazine, local celebrity gossip blog Hollywood on the Potomac, U.S. News and World Report, African-American women's interest magazine Sisters2Sisters, The Washington Post, Yahoo! News and both Roll Call and Final Call -- the former a Washington political trade publication, the later the Nation of Islam's paper of record.

"There's a lot of Barry haters," the councilman said. "I just hope they read the book first."

They have.

Considerable attention has been given to the memoir's salacious bits. Of his first use of cocaine, Barry writes that it “felt like I had ejaculated,” describing the drug as "a powerful stimulant that went straight to my penis.” And Barry was convinced that the 1990 sting operation that resulted in his infamous arrest for crack cocaine possession was actually a botched assassination attempt by the FBI:

"Usually, they would break in and arrest you before you did [crack cocaine]. So I was thinking they were really trying to kill me. That's why they had a paramedic there with them to cover their tracks. Why would they bring a paramedic with them unless they expected me to have an overdose and die?"

But critics have also drawn attention to a number of the book's glaring discrepancies and omissions, including Barry's claim that he had never smoked crack prior to his arrest -- despite court testimony to the contrary and Barry's own words the night of the bust that "I don't smoke no more, honey." The absence of any discussion of his two censures from the D.C. Council is also notable.

In that respect, Mayor for Life is a dime-a-dozen political memoir: self-aggrandizing, petty, and solipsistic through and through. But where it fails as a retelling of Barry's life, it succeeds as a document of the man's complex legacy and his maddeningly warped and contradictory outlook.

On the one hand, there is the Barry who for decades fought tirelessly and fearlessly to rescue African-Americans from the toxic legacy of Jim Crow and to undo the political, economic and psychological realities of what has been termed the "cradle to prison pipeline." Then there is the insensitive and aloof Barry who, while serving his prison sentence, "had a running joke where we told the new guys not to bend over for the soap in the shower."

There is the Barry who writes, with heart-wrenching detail and empathy, about how his imprisonment affected his son, Christopher, inculcating in him "anger issues that he still had to deal with as a young man and adult." Then there is the Barry who was miffed that his third wife, Effi Barry, refused to visit him in jail after he was recorded in the Vista Hotel smoking crack with his mistress, former model Rasheeda Moore.

Indeed the passage in Mayor for Life describing that moment at the Vista Hotel -- the one that upended Barry's life and quickly became the defining moment of his long career -- perfectly encapsulates Barry's clouded, often nonchalant view of his checkered past:

"The FBI told me 'You're under arrest,' or something like that."

Back at LOOK, Barry continued to hold court, pivoting questions to his mayoral achievements and policy prescriptions going forward. As one reporter began to pose a question, Barry -- who had just engaged in a short conversation with HuffPost about his love of the blues -- interrupted by belting out a rendition of "Stormy Monday," the T-Bone Walker standard:

Well they call it stormy Monday, well Tuesday's just as bad
Well they call it stormy Monday -- Tuesday's just as bad
And comes Wednesday, and Thursday is soooooo so sad

Yes the eagle flies on Friday -- that's payday! -- and Saturday I go out to play
Well the Eagle flies on Fridaaaaay, and Saturday I go out to play
Then comes Sunday morning, what do I do? Get dooooown on my kneeeees and praaaay

Lord have mercy,
Lord have mercy on meeeeee
Oh Lord! Oh Lord, have mercy on me!

The room erupted in applause.



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