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After Words

1998: Power Writer

After WordsJohn Barry loves to immerse himself in topics--such as politics, nature, and wealth--that exude power.

The football-coach-turned-writer likes to analyze the deceptively simple workings of a team's game plan as much as he enjoys studying political maneuverings.

"I play chess also," he says. "There's a lot of chess to football. Ultimately both games come down to just basic things."

Strategy could be the common thread woven throughout Barry's work. The author of The Ambition and the Power: A True Story of Washington has covered national politics as Washington editor of Dun's Review and has written for the New York Times Magazine, Esquire, Newsweek, The Washington Post, and Sports Illustrated. Barry also co-wrote The Transformed Cell, a book on cancer research that has been published in 12 languages.

Barry decided to write his most recent book, Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America (Simon & Schuster 1997), when he realized that the story of the disaster was as much about human abuse of power as it was about the unrelenting force of nature.

While sniffing around for more information on that all-but-forgotten disaster, Barry found that when the Mississippi and its tributaries spilled their banks in the Great Flood of 1927, it did more than devour life and land from Virginia to Oklahoma: It changed the course of American history.

"At first I just wanted to write about the river. I was astounded by its power," he says. "But I was also fascinated by man's power. Ultimately it rests on the threat of violence. In this case, the rawest kind of political power was used. The flood washed away the earth and revealed what lay beneath."

If you've never heard of this flood, you're not alone.

"Few people today know about the Great Flood of '27," Barry says. "I hadn't heard of it myself till the 50th anniversary, when I was living in New Orleans." (He now splits his time between New Orleans and Washington, D.C.)

The flood was all but forgotten, Barry tells us, despite the fact that newspaper editors unanimously voted it the biggest story of the year (second biggest was Charles Lindbergh's flight to Paris).

The numbers Barry found in his research tell the story:

The Mississippi River swelled to 125 miles across. Some 127,000 square miles--or the combined size of New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut--fell victim at the river's southern end. (More land was flooded to the north.)

The homes of more than one million people, nearly 1 percent of the U.S. population, were washed away.

Nearly 700,000 people had to be fed by the Red Cross--for months.

The bulk of the suffering occurred among African-American sharecroppers, a fact, he says, that was almost completely ignored until recently.

The flood drove some 325,000, most of them African Americans, into refugee camps, where living conditions were appalling. Armed National Guardsmen patrolled exits; no one could enter or leave without a pass. Worse, he says, refugees were forced to work for no pay.

Barry says simple economics drove conditions in the camps.

"Powerful businessmen feared that if blacks--their plentiful, cheap labor force--were allowed to leave, the economic machinery of the delta would grind to a halt. Essentially, slavery was reintroduced."

Barry's research untangled a web of deception that, among other things, motivated African Americans to switch alliances from the Republican to the Democratic Party, and put Herbert Hoover in the White House.

"The flood really made him president; he was on the front pages for weeks," Barry says, noting that even when Hoover, as head of the massive rescue and rehabilitation effort, inflated numbers of lives saved or otherwise overstated his leadership role, the press repeatedly failed to call him on it.

Times have changed, Barry says.

"James Carville [former Clinton aide and a Louisiana native] told me, 'Hoover had a better press operation than any politician has today.'" (For the record, Carville "loved the book," Barry adds.)

But beyond the intriguing events Barry uncovered while researching his book, he was most fascinated by the serenity of life in the Mississippi delta before the floodwaters roared through. Save for a couple of random incidents, the area was an island of relative racial equality in a segregated South.

"At the public schools in Greenville, Mississippi, black students studied Latin, while in other parts of the South, many blacks didn't even attend school," he says.

If the events surrounding the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 sound like a movie script, you're on the right track. Barry, who wrote a television mini-series on George Wallace, has sold the option for his latest book to TNT for a mini-series.

1969: Football Aspirations

Barry, who grew up in Rhode Island and attended Brown University, was drawn to Rochester by the reputation of Professor Herbert Gutman. He enrolled in Rochester's graduate program in history, completing his M.A. in 1969.

While at Rochester, Barry took his first steps as a professional writer, penning articles for Upstate, the now-defunct Sunday magazine of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, and trying his hand at syndication. He eventually received a job offer at the newspaper, but he opted to move south to pursue another passion: football. He later coached at a variety of high schools and colleges, among them Washington's Sidwell Friends School, whose most famous alumna is probably first-daughter Chelsea Clinton, and at Tulane, where he was assistant coach to a team that beat powerhouses Louisiana State, Chapel Hill, and Duke.

Former Rochester history professor Ronald Formisano, now on the faculty at the University of Florida, remembers playing pick-up games with Barry "and some other really serious players."

"John strikes me as always having been something of an adventurer," Formisano says. "He's hard to categorize because he's always been interested in lots of things."

Sally Parker

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Rochester Review--Volume 60 Number 3--Spring-Summer 1998
Copyright 1998, University of Rochester
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