It came by tweet, one of the most condensed and seemingly reductive forms of modern communication. But it had something sincere about it, an apology that actually felt like an apology, an expression of moral regret that sounded as if genuinely the result of moral awakening. In a world of carefully parsed, conditional apologies that shift blame to the victim and reek of calculated insincerity, Marion Barry gave an apology that cut through the usual political noise with a clarion note of authenticity.
Love him, hate him, Marion Barry said “sorry,” at 8:03 p.m. on Sunday evening, via Twitter: “I also thank outstanding medical staff, incl. kind professional Filipino staff. I stand corrected. I truly didn’t mean 2 hurt or offend.” He had just been treated for a potentially lethal blood blot, which may have formed while he was traveling to Las Vegas for a convention. The addressee of his apology were Filipino health care workers, whom he had denigrated on April 23 in comments that were ostensibly about building up job opportunities in his ward, but which read like another item in a long litany of careless race baiting by the four-term former mayor: “[I]f you go to the hospital now, you’ll find a number of immigrants who are nurses, particularly from the Philippines,” said Barry. “And no offense, but let’s grow our own teachers, let’s grow our own nurses, and so that we don’t have to go scrounging in our community clinics and other kinds of places, having to hire people from somewhere else.”
When a man knows he is to be hanged, Dr. Johnson said, it “concentrates his mind wonderfully.” The tweets sent by Barry shortly after his ordeal have the concentration of a man who was likely genuinely scared of imminent death. His apologetic tweet was followed by several others that continued the theme of remorse. “Being sick brings religion,” tweeted Barry four minutes after his initial mea culpa. “There’s more t/b achieved with w/love&unity than divisive words. I am truly sorry.”
Apparently aware of the multiple layers of oddity and irony in his sudden embrace of Filipino hospital staff, Barry tweeted: “So I got my religion in Vegas. Go figure.”
Barry has become a study in the surreal politics of Washington, a champion of gay rights who came out against gay marriage, a civil rights leader who is now equally well known for his crude and divisive racial language. His Dickensian encounter with mortality, like Scrooge waking up after ghost number three, was as surreal as the saga of D.C.’s Mayor for Life gets. It would be easy to be cynical, as people have been cynical for centuries about deathbed conversions.
But the tweets don’t feel Machiavellian. At one point yesterday, Barry tweeted a photograph of his nurse, with a small nugget of information that seemed so genuinely apt and true that it gives the color of truth to all his other hospital tweets: “Nurse Deanna who initially was a little “frustrated” w/me(ok I was a little grouchy) now she’s my best friend here!TU!”
Sickness doesn’t just concentrate the mind; it tears down its defenses. It places us absolutely in the hands of other people, and thus reveals our capacity to trust. Sick people do indeed often bark at their caregivers, and good caregivers have the exceptional capacity to empathize so grandly that they can see beyond the barking invalid to the scared child that is brought to the surface by illness. Barry’s apology for whatever may have “frustrated” nurse Deanna suggests his self-awareness at a time of crisis.
And his tweets suggest a deeper self-awareness, that perhaps his racially tinged comments (and the firestorm they’ve elicited in the past few months) were weighing on his conscience. Illness often catalyzes unformed or nascent moral awakenings.
Tweeting is indeed reductive, but sometimes a small quantum of information is all that is necessary to speak one’s mind. In Barry’s case, it revealed the rapid processing of small bits of information, a real-time evolution of his thoughts about what constitutes decency and kindness in public and private life. The standard political apology, issued after days or weeks of contorted explanations and posturing, usually feels worked up by committee, a document rather than a genuine speech act of remorse. Barry’s tweets, like all tweets, don’t have the capacity to get deep into the weeds of obfuscation and dog-whistle subtleties.
But they don’t need to be any longer. Many political questions are intensely complicated and require long consideration and extensive explication. But much of our moral life comes about in small epiphanies, for which tweeting proves to be an ideal conveyance. The essence of the moral life is applying basic rules—do unto others…—to everyday behavior. Moral revelation is often intensely simple: The old rule applies now, here, to these people. We might think that it takes a novelist to convey moral truths deeply. But novels are built of small nuggets of data, small apercus such as the ones Barry sent out over the past two days.
Even Barry, who is an active tweeter, seemed to realize that he has found his perfect form. Among his hospital tweets were thanks to the Twitter community, and to Twitter in general: “1 final thing- 4 better or worse comments,& I DO receive my share of worse, I love Twitter&it’s ability 2 let people communicate real talk.”
Barry skeptics won’t likely change their view of the man. But it is rare in political life to sense a capacity for moral growth, to see someone genuinely prove himself susceptible to the teachable moment. A man may get many, many things wrong, but if he shows the capacity to improve, he is redeemable.
There are other groups who will likely feel that Barry owes them some Twitter love. And most everyone who followed the ex-Mayor’s strange and terrifying adventure in Sin City will likely agree: Sometimes, what happens in Vegas shouldn’t, in fact, stay in Vegas.