City Desk

Today in D.C. History: Marion Barry, the Super Bowl, and the ‘Blizzard of Indifference’

On Jan. 25, 1987, then-Mayor Marion Barry was relaxing in Southern California as the nation's capital was being pounded by a blizzard.

Snow began falling on Jan. 22, one day after Barry left on a trip to California to watch Super Bowl XXI (Broncos vs. Giants—New York won, 39-20). Barry had been in a semi-permanent celebratory mode since winning his third term. Three weeks before the Super Bowl trip, Barry had quietly gone to Jamaica for a four-day vacation.

After learning of the snowstorm, Barry chose to stay in California. After learning D.C. was about to be hit by a second, even bigger storm, some thought he might finally decide to return early and take the helm. But he instead stayed for the Super Bowl itself, 24 years ago today.

He stayed after the Super Bowl as well, to play tennis and get a manicure, before collapsing and being rushed to the hospital. As Harry Jaffe and Tom Sherwood recorded in their 1994 book Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, DC:

The day after the game Barry was in Oak View Park partying and playing poker with friends... that evening, after drinking several bottles of champagne and a quart of cognac, Barry and two women friends disappeared into a bedroom and closed the door. When the two women left the townhouse, Barry slumped to a sofa, head thrown back. His nose ran, and he made low grunting noises. The mayor clutched his chest and said he was having trouble breathing.... At Daniel Freedman Hospital Barry was given oxygen and immediately began to feel better. He told the hospital that blood tests and other exams weren’t necessary, and he was released.

The District ultimately got hit with 26 inches of snow.

D.C. newspapers, including Washington City Paper, roundly criticized Barry, who finally returned to the District six days after the first snowfall. City Paper ran a headline asking “Has Our Mayor-for-Life Gone Snow Blind?”

In a Feb. 6, 1987, Loose Lips column titled “Blizzard of Indifference,” the mayor was pounded:

The disaster in the snow brutally laid bare the grim fact that Barry intends to be a part-time mayor during his third, four-year term, which, unfortunately, is only month gone [sic].... Never has a mayor seemed more unwilling to fulfill the responsibilities of his office than Barry did last week.

City Paper compared Barry to newly-elected Baltimore Mayor Clarence H. Du Burns, who did a much better job. “With Du Burns in command, Baltimore cleared its main streets within hours after the snow had fallen, a period of time when the District’s snow trucks and plows were still as rare as the Tennessee snail darter,” City Paper wrote. (Snail darter? A reference a small fish endangered by the Tellico Dam in Tennessee.)

City Paper also attacked D.C.'s congressional delegate at the time, Walter Fauntroy, for similar negligence. Fauntroy was in D.C. during the 1987 blizzard, but we reported that:

“Fauntroy—who spends much of his time pouting because people won’t call him “Congressman” instead of “non-voting congressional Delegate”—is not about step forward... Fauntroy was more concerned with currying favor with his congressional colleagues by giving them expanded parking privileges in the District than he was in trying to help the city cope with the snow and ice that shut down the federal government and further frayed the already-strained relations between the District Building and Capitol Hill.

City Paper concluded the situation had dashed hopes of D.C. receiving statehood anytime soon:

Barry, and to a lesser extent, Fauntroy, have become liabilities rather than assets to the District’s political future. The attainment of statehood for the District, which Barry and Fauntroy cited as one of their goals for this session of Congress, suffered a serious blow in the chaos created by the city’s inadequate and uncoordinated response to the snow. Congress is not likely to give the city more control over its own affairs after city officials demonstrated they could not even clear the streets or and keep the subways running on time, which the federal government has come to depend on to get its employees to work.

City Paper did note one positive out of the whole affair. In a separate Feb. 6 article titled "Post Finds Its Voice," City Paper wrote:

The one bright spot out rising out of the frustrations and anger over the city’s meltdown method of dealing with ice and snow appeared on the Washington Post editorial page Jan. 28. The Post’s editorial writers have been so hamstrung by criticism from blacks and so ridden by their own white liberal guilt that they have been unable to produce little more than mush when criticizing the Barry administration. But editorial writer Bob Asher’s lashing critique of the failure of "Antarctica on the Potomac" to serve its citizens and daily visitors exudes real passion...

Asher’s editorial had lambasted city officials. In one section, he wrote:

What did the city government use to get rid of snow—spoons and matchbooks? What did it do all night with the plows it does have—park them next to those Metro subway cars that were hibernating in seclusion somewhere while trusting souls were jammed along wind-whipped platforms waiting for no-show trains?

New Mayor Vince Gray has been lucky, thus far, to have escaped a major test of his administration's winter weather response. But winter isn't over yet!

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