Democracy in D.C. is comedy of errors


I AM a proud and vigorous advocate of democracy. Democracy may not be the most rational, most efficient or least irritating form of government. But it is certainly the funniest.

Nowhere is this more true than in the capital of democracy itself, the city that serves as a beacon of hope for people the world over: Washington, my hometown, our Interstate 95 neighbor to the south.

Beside the broad boulevards punctuated by equestrian statues, inside the gargantuan pseudo-classical marble edifices designed to inspire awe in foreign tourists and American schoolchildren on their sixth-grade trips, lurk the James Traficants, the comedians of our greatness. Bless his hairless little head, and those of Richard Gephardt and Trent Lott.

But even more fun than the members of the national government - even more fun than homeland security and the IRS and the Department of Leaking Invasion Plans to the New York Times - are the locals, whose high jinks have been entertaining the world for decades.

Washington Mayor Anthony A. Williams hired some friends to gather signatures for his nominating petitions as he runs for re-election. They needed about 2,000 names, and with a grand flourish submitted more than 10,000.

Unfortunately, page after page was in the same handwriting and the petitions included such names as Martha Stewart, Saint Paul and deceased comedian Dudley Moore.

The election board that Mr. Williams himself appointed ruled that his name could not appear on the ballot - a decision that he whimsically condemned as "lawless" - and fined his campaign a record $277,700 for 5,533 violations of election law. Now the signature-gathering comedians are taking the Fifth through their tears. Like my mama used to say: You should have thought of that while you were cheating.

Mayor Williams, meantime, plans a write-in campaign, and says, "I'm still energized." His leading opponent is a Baptist minister from the city's Anacostia section, Willie F. Wilson, who also is staging a write-in drive.

Sadly, his opponents do not include Marion Barry, one of the great stand-up acts of American politics. Mr. Barry, you may recall, was caught smoking crack while serving as mayor in 1990, when per capita homicide records were being set in Washington because of an epidemic of crack cocaine use.

Mr. Barry kept disappearing to treatment facilities, but was afterward elected to the City Council and then again to the mayor's office. And as an amused electorate gazed benevolently on his adventures, the Washington school system admitted again that it had no idea how many children were enrolled and it took geological epochs for city workers to repair a pothole.

Congress eventually more or less declared martial law and removed the city from Mr. Barry's governance, placing it in the ruthlessly efficient hands of Mr. Williams as chief financial officer. Mr. Barry was exploring yet another political comeback in March, when, according to the park police, officers found him in a car downtown, "ingesting something." They said he had white powder on his face and cocaine and marijuana "residue" in his car.

"It's great waking up in the morning clean and sober," Mr. Barry once said, not specifying the condition in which he'd gone to bed the night before.

Comedian Chris Rock is apparently producing a movie about Mr. Barry starring comedian Jamie Foxx. Mr. Barry, who has seen a script, calls the film project "outrageous and disrespectful." Meanwhile, Mr. Rock asks "How the hell did Marion Barry get his job back [as mayor]? If you get caught smoking crack at McDonald's, you can't get your job back. They're not going to trust you around the Happy Meals."

No doubt, like Mr. Williams, Mr. Barry is feeling energized. That, as we say, is entertainment.

Crispin Sartwell teaches philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art. He can be reached at www.crispin

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