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THE ARREST of Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion S. Barry, a dominant figure on the local political scene in the capital for a dozen years or more, has had a shattering impact on the capital's black community and on the career of a man who had risen from humble origins to a position of political power.

Barry had repeatedly denied accusations of drug abuse over the years, blaming political opponents or the "white media," but now he has reportedly been videotaped while buying and smoking cocaine in an FBI undercover operation. While not admitting guilt, Barry acknowledged the need "to heal my body, mind and soul" and said he would seek help.

Barry's career had been an inspiration for African-American young people. The son of Mississippi sharecroppers, he graduated from college with a master's degree and became a leader in the civil rights movement. He demonstrated how the system could be made to work for blacks, but his own American dream has now turned to tragedy.

Many African-Americans feel he has let his people down; others feel he is a victim of a power structure that was out to "get" him.

There are, of course, political overtones in the arrest of a prominent Democrat by a Republican administration -- and by the FBI, which many years ago harassed the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But Barry appears to have been his own worst enemy. And the "sting" operation used in his case is a common and proper weapon in the war on drugs.

Barry contributed to a period of renewal in Washington marked by progress in business, construction and the arts, but his downfall has now left a stain and a mood of confusion, anger and dismay. The capital has the highest homicide rate in the nation -- mostly drug-related -- and President Bush recently called January "the month of murder" in Washington.

Barry not only denied accusations of drug abuse but campaigned actively against narcotics. He visited schools and denounced the evils of what has become a drug epidemic in the city. Now he is a tarnished role model.

Barry has yet to be found guilty, of course, and he has proved himself a formidable survivor in the past, but his political career could be over. A prominent successor in the mayoral post could be the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who might take a rest from presidential politics for a while.

It is sad to see a hero fall, even when he brings it on himself. The case of Marion Barry is a demonstration of what drug abuse can do to a brilliant talent. The tragic story should prompt even more determined efforts to wage the drug war.

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