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Another take on Marion Barry

Flags are fluttering at half-staff in Washington, D.C., for its former mayor, Marion S. Barry, known as “Old Shep” to some of his loyal Washington constituents.

You might not have known that Barry’s middle initial stands for “Shepilov,” adopted by him as a middle name in the early ’60s while a student at LeMoyne College in Memphis. Barry was a campus politician. He led the local NAACP and was no intellectual slouch. He earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in chemistry.

Barry’s namesake was Dmitri Shepilov, a revolutionary Bolshevik, who became the longtime editor of Pravda, the Soviet Communist Party’s official newspaper in Moscow. Shepilov was a former head of the Propaganda and Disinformation Department who became the foreign minister. Barry was tagged “Shepilov” by college friends because of his left-wing politics. Barry liked it so well he kept it.

Barry was born in a rundown shack in the sharecropper’s hamlet of Itta Bena, Miss., in 1936. He was given no middle name. His mother was 17, his father, Marion Barry Sr., was in his early 40s and soon abandoned the family.

Marion’s mother moved Marion to Memphis, where she found work as a maid and in a rendering plant. Tough beginnings. Barry, whatever his later corruption and colorful dishonesty, developed a very strong work ethic. He bagged groceries, had two paper routes and became an Eagle Scout.

I had lunch with Mayor Barry in the summer of 1988 in the new Voice of America cafeteria, a few blocks down from Capitol Hill. The mayor and I cut the official ribbon to open the place. He was there because I had agreed, as VOA director, to hire local citizens who needed jobs as cafeteria workers. My only recollections after all these years are how flirtatious he was with young VOA female employees and how I later regretted not asking about the weirdness of his middle name. The VOA’s base raison d’etre, after all, was vernacular language broadcasting to the Soviet Union and its satellite states. Marion ”Shepilov” Barry?

Later that year I was in Moscow. I debated the editor of Pravda, the organ of the Soviet Communist Party, at the newspaper’s headquarters. The subject was press freedom. Listening to the Soviets talk about how free their media were is like hearing President Obama brag about the transparency of his administration.

When we ended — and after I made the delicious point that two former editors of Pravda had been executed by the government, including Bolshevik Nikola Bukharin — I was introduced to an old man sitting with a few other spectators — Dmitri Shepilov, the former Pravda editor. He was in his 80s and frail. He smiled and in a moment I moved on.

The Weekly Standard’s Matt LaBash knew Marion Barry well. Wrote Matt, hours after Barry died: “Though he was accused of many things — and was probably guilty of at least three-fourths of them — being uninteresting was never one of them. And on his best days, Barry might have even found something approximating a state of grace.”

Richard W. Carlson is a former U.S. ambassador to the Seychelles and the former director of the Voice of America.


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