Chris Christie and the late Marion Barry: Very different, very colorful

Posted at 5:39 AM, Nov 24, 2014

This week’s recommendations are long portraits of two of our more colorful politicians – from totally different worlds: Marion Barry, who died this weekend, and Chris Christie. 

The Washington Post, as you would expect, has a good, thorough obituary of Barry that marches through his gargantuan life, from sharecropper’s son, to civil rights leader in the 1960s, to mayor of Washington, to prison and, most incredibly, back to the mayor’s office. Barry would have been implausible as a fictional character, never far from scandal, impervious to embarrassment, beloved to this day by many in Washington.

Bart Barnes obit concluded with this:

In an interview with Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy shortly after his colleagues voted to censure him, Mr. Barry declared he was 'feeling great. . . . I’ve been through worse. . . . The reason I survive is because I have an abiding faith in God.

'Having faith doesn’t mean you don’t have to use good sense. God doesn’t expect you to act like a fool. But God did give us a secular side and a human side. There is a constant fight between the Devil, which is the flesh, and the spirit, which is God. It’s a total, all-out war.'

Christy, worlds away from Barry, nonetheless is a politician who lets some real personality squeak out of scripts.  And he has been very much on a script since his Bridgegate troubles. Mark Leibovich’s long profile in The New York Times Magazine seems like a calculated step in Christie’s escape from his cocoon, or at least as much of a cocoon as can hold him.

It is, overall, a sympathetic portrait.  Christy, scripted or not, showed emotional skin:

For all of Christie’s showy machismo, he often cites strong women as the formative influences of his life. His grandmother, a Roosevelt Democrat who was born on a boat from Sicily, introduced him to politics. He spent weekends at “Nanny’s” apartment in West Orange watching “Meet the Press” and going to church. “I think because the women in my life have been the predominant influence, that it makes me that much more comfortable with my own emotions,” he told me. “I think, in general, women are better at that.” He mentioned the experience of starting at the University of Delaware after learning that his mother, Sondra, found out she had breast cancer and required immediate surgery. “I sat there by myself for two days, thinking about not only the separation anxiety of going to school but also worrying about my mother,” Christie told me. “I had to teach myself how to move on from that because I had classes to start and friends to make. It was one of the most difficult periods of my life, but it taught me very much that you have to move on. It didn’t teach me how to do it, but it taught me that you had to do it.”

Christie talks a great deal about his mother, who died in 2004 and who he says preached the importance of respect, of loyalty and of a love based on a full airing of grievance. “There is nothing left unsaid between us,” Christie, the oldest of three children, recounted her telling him as she lay dying of cancer. He recounts the deathbed story as an explanation for his blunt style. “There was open regular warfare between my parents,” Christie told me. As the oldest, he was often called upon to step in and calm things down. I wondered for a second if these battles ever became physical. He shook his head. “It was two very passionate people who loved an argument,” he said. “That’s the atmosphere that I grew up with.” I asked him if it led him to appreciate an argument or dread it. “Both,” he said.

If Christie runs for president, he’ll spice up the race for sure. But it will be tame compared to the unforgettable Marion Barry.

[Also by Dick Meyer: Have race relations improved under Obama?]

Want to keep up with all the latest DecodeDC stories and podcasts? Sign up for our weekly newsletter at