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“D.C. really loves characters. It really loves the story behind a person. The policy and the voting record is secondary to the person,” Marcus Sakey, the crime novelist and host of Travel Channel’s “Hidden City,” said about the interwoven tales of former Mayor Marion Barry and Washington, D.C.
Sakey’s show specializes in digging up the more sordid bits of cities’ histories, profiling famous places through episodes many people would rather not dwell on.
Washington gets its “Hidden” treatment tonight. Sakey had a wealth of material to choose from before settling on Barry’s arrest for possession of crack cocaine in 1990, the 2002 Beltway sniper shootings and the 2001 arrest of FBI agent Robert Hanssen for selling secrets to the Russians.
“It’s interesting trying to pick the stories,” Sakey said in an interview last week. “Crime in cities is pretty much the same: drugs, murder. ... You’re looking for ones that tell a story about the place.”
Charmed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s smoke-and-trans-fat-free New York? Don’t worry, Sakey is there to remind you of the horrific deaths of Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen.
Left your heart in San Francisco? How about revisiting the unsolved crime of the Zodiac Killer?
Heading down to New Orleans for Mardi Gras this month? Don’t forget about the shootings on the Danziger Bridge, a sordid coda to Hurricane Katrina.
And now Sakey has turned his hard-boiled perspective on Washington. Looking forward to visiting the Lincoln Memorial? Don’t forget to swing by the hotel where Barry was busted for smoking crack!
“These three are such an interesting profile of D.C.,” Sakey said in the interview.
As painful as some of the memories surrounding the topics are, they demonstrate the multifaceted identity of Washington.
Barry’s arrest, and the racial tension in the city that the incident brought out, shows Washington as a municipality that frequently runs into conflict with the federal government.
The sniper shootings, in which John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo terrorized the area for 23 days, killing 10 and injuring three, show Washington as a place of many communities spanning several cities, counties and states.
“The snipers: The whole city was under siege,” Sakey said.
For the episode, the show put together a roundtable of citizens. The killers’ indiscriminate methods — they shot whites, blacks, federal workers, children, a bus driver — put the region “in a state of hysteria,” said Nicholas Benton, one of the panelists and editor of the Falls Church News-Press.
For Sakey, it was striking how the trauma lingered. “Even now, nine years later, everyone was shaken by it,” he said.
And the Hanssen affair, wherein he used his position as an FBI counter-espionage officer to feed secrets to the KGB and its successor agency, showed Washington as a capital city, the seat of government and hub of the international community.
Hanssen’s proximity to power — he was a confidant of FBI Director Louis Freeh — and his seemingly innocuous suburban life masked one of the biggest intelligence failures in U.S. history, the depths of which are still being sorted out.
“Not all monsters lurk in the night. Some of them wear a suit, go to church and work for the people who are supposed to protect us,” Sakey said in the episode.
‘Perfect for D.C.’
But it’s Barry that offered the richest material for the show.
“Like most stories that turn me on, this one is complicated,” Sakey says in the episode.
The incident of Barry smoking crack and getting nabbed by a joint FBI-police sting barely scratched the surface. As Sakey dug deeper, the story developed more layers, revealing truths not just about Barry, but about the city itself.
“There are people who love him and people who hate him, and [they all] look at him as a symbol of the city,” Sakey said. “He went from poverty in the Deep South to national success and then was totally consumed, taken off track by his own weaknesses.”
Barry’s rise to power, first as a civil rights figure and then later as a school board member, city councilman and mayor, track the city’s story of fighting for home rule and becoming a beacon of black empowerment.
The problems that surrounded Barry for years, from his own drug abuse to civic decay, belie an astoundingly successful politician.
After his arrest, Barry was convicted of misdemeanor drug possession and spent six months in prison. He was later elected again to the D.C. Council and then won a fourth term as mayor in 1994.
That election laid bare the city’s white-black tensions, as well as the federal-local rift. After his victory, he told his detractors to “get over it,” and his term was defined by a standoff with the Republican-controlled Congress over control of the city’s finances and questions about a Washington reeling with crime and deteriorating services.
When he announced he would not seek a fifth term as mayor in 1998, he acknowledged his standoff with Congress, which stripped him of much of his executive authority as mayor, was to the detriment of the city.
Barry returned again to elected office, though, winning a D.C. Council seat representing Ward 8 in 2004, and he was re-elected in 2008. He is running for re-election this year and is favored to win, even amid questions of continuing substance abuse, income tax evasion and ill health.
Sakey quotes an old campaign slogan Barry used to sum up his appeal: “He may not be perfect. But he’s perfect for D.C.”
“Even the people virulently against him seem to like him. These are opponents,” Sakey said. In the episode, a long line of people, from Democratic power brokers to people on the street, attest to Barry’s political acumen. “He has that natural touch with people,” attorney Max N. Berry says in the episode, arguing that he belongs in a class with Presidents Bill Clinton and John F. Kennedy.
“The people in Ward 8, despite the fact that Ward 8 has not really grown under his time, they love him. It’s almost, like, ‘There’s the local boy done good,’” Sakey said.
The conflict between Barry and Congress seems to encapsulate the conflict between the city of Washington and the seat of national government that ultimately has final say over much of its affairs.
“It’s a divide that’s easily missed by tourists,” Sakey said. “I think the perception of the city is marble and monuments and maybe Georgetown.”
At least in this episode of “Hidden City,” people can count on seeing a lot more than the National Mall.