Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

Drugs and murder - it's just like the old days
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It's been just like old times in Washington DC this week. The bad old times, that is. First a senseless, random killing close to where I live; then the news that Marion Barry, our esteemed former mayor, had failed a drug test.

Was this January 2006 or January 1991, when I arrived here for the first time? Back then the city was not the glossy, visibly booming place it is today, but a bankrupt mess with an out-of control drug problem and the highest homicide rate in the US. And it was presided over by a mayor who was a national joke.

And now this ghastly flashback. On the evening of 6 January, David Rosenbaum, a recently retired New York Times reporter, was taking an after-dinner walk near his home when he was attacked and left dying in the street.

It took 23 minutes for an ambulance to arrive after the first emergency call, and a further 25 minutes to get Rosenbaum to hospital. Once there, he was left on a stretcher for an hour before he was examined. Apparently, the emergency services thought he was drunk. He died the next day.

In short, the violent, incompetent DC of yesteryear. It reminded me of the murder in 1992 of the 15-year-old son of a World Bank official, just 100 yards from where we lived, in the same sort of modestly upscale neighbourhood exactly opposite where my son now goes to high school. The boy was cleaning up the garden in front of his house when someone drove by and shot him dead, just for the fun of it. I thought that sort of thing didn't happen any more. I was wrong.

Three days after Rosenbaum's death came Barry's latest disgrace. The old rascal had won re-election in the Ward 8 district, DC's poorest, in 2004 and had been swaggering around the city council. Then, last Tuesday, The Washington Post reported that "Hizzoner" had tested positive last October for cocaine use in a court-ordered medical examination after he pleaded guilty to failing to file tax returns for the previous six years.

As always with Barry, the episode had an endearingly roguish flavour. "Write what you want to write," he told a reporter from the Post, his longstanding tormentor. As a line it is right up there in the Barry anthology alongside his immortal "Bitch set me up" in January 1990, when he was caught doing crack cocaine in a hotel. The she-dog in question was a former girlfriend who lured him to the room at the behest of the FBI.

This time the fall was less spectacular. Even so, the next day's Post carried a picture of Barry leaving hospital where he had been treated for high blood pressure. He looked thinner than in his heyday. But as he stood there grinning for the camera, decked out in a dashing black fedora and natty charcoal overcoat, you felt a bit of the old magnetism that once led the city to the brink of disaster.

The real lesson of these two events has been that they are exceptions that prove the rule. The city has changed almost out of recognition since I arrived 15 years ago, and entirely for the better. The drug problem has shrunk, and with it the murder rate. The huge budget deficits have vanished, replaced by a healthy surplus fuelled by a booming property market.

Not so long ago, the dodgy part of Washington DC started the proverbial "four blocks from the White House". Now the sleek, low-slung downtown is advancing eastward. For four blocks, read eight or 10. And the city is set to build a new baseball stadium. Last but not least, Washington is no longer a one-industry town. You can even go to a dinner party and talk about something other than politics and the misdeeds of the federal government.

Last week, in short, was a tragic aberration. Who knows, it might just have been the final act of Marion Barry, though I wouldn't bet on it.