Wayne Barrett, Who Taught Me Everything, Is Gone Just When We Need Him Most

Wayne Barrett made muckraking great again. Photo: Jesse Dittmar/Redux

In late September, Wayne Barrett stood behind a lectern at a party in his honor and pulled on a familiar red baseball cap. “I’m going to play a little Donald tonight,” he said, shaking two thumbs-ups in the air. The gesture was joke enough for the crowd, because no one hated Wayne Barrett as much as Donald Trump did.

A few weeks before it was reissued in 2016, Trump: The Deals and the Downfall, Barrett’s extremely unauthorized 1992 book investigating Donald Trump’s earliest Dumpster fires, was going for $150 per copy on Amazon. Last year, the basement of Barrett’s house in Windsor Terrace became a point of pilgrimage for reporters investigating the candidate. In a few months, more than 60 writers came through to flip through stacks of curled yellow legal pads piled into archive boxes, a body of research that began in 1979 with a two-part Village Voice cover story, “Like Father, Like Son: Anatomy of a Young Power Broker.”

Wayne Barrett died on Thursday after a long battle with interstitial lung disease and lung cancer. He was America’s greatest living investigative reporter, in part because he rooted facts out like a hound but also because he unleashed those facts in a torrent of unflinching fortitude, making New York’s most powerful people face the corruption of their own back rooms. In Wayne Barrett’s writing, you could always smell the disgust. Even at age 71, he always seemed to have more work ahead. Last night, his longtime friend and Voice colleague Tom Robbins wrote on Twitter, “On the drive to the hospital where he breathed his last, Wayne Barrett was still doing interviews for a big, tough story on Donald Trump.”

He wrote a column for the Village Voice for 37 years. His books about Ed Koch, Rudolph Giuliani, and Donald Trump are unrelenting, thick with facts, portraits of villains accused, tried, and proven undoubtedly guilty by the last paragraph. His career can be best judged by the men who despised him: Giuliani, New York City’s most adversarial mayor; Roger Stone, the Republican Party’s favorite double-crossing operative; Senator Al D’Amato, a friend to mobsters and lobbyists alike.

Talking politics with Wayne Barrett was like flipping through the index of New York’s underbelly, his memory a truck-tire-size Rolodex of misdeeds, with pattern recognition coded to political networks. Wayne could play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon with any political figure or corruption scheme of the past 40 years, constructing a web of bad guys out of his head. And “they were almost always guys,” he’d say, smiling.

It was a surprise, then, that he was passionately kind. He took in young journalists like a den mother, and sent them back out into the field as professional investigators. He readily shared his illustrious byline with his interns, one of whom was me. His rat pack of research assistants can be found at work around the globe: Matt Taibbi was a Barrett intern; so was William Bastone; Wayne’s protégés ran the Cambodia Daily for years. I have a degree from journalism school that taught me far less in four years than Wayne Barrett did in one.

He sketched bad guys in language I knew only from comic books; scumbags and bagmen and crooked wiseguys. He would call into the office via speakerphone, his voice a rasp long before the lung disease set in, and he would eviscerate the scoundrels. A hero for Gotham, and remarkably, one who listened when New Yorkers called for help.

Tips came into Wayne’s line at the Voice all day: someone whispering half a clue, “You may want to look into how Reverend Al is actually spending that money,” or telling a terrible story of stolen paychecks and a dirty boss. Wayne’s phone served as a citywide checks-and-balances system. He was an equal-opportunity exposer, relishing a story of widespread gubernatorial corruption as much as a takedown of one evil slumlord.

After the deadlines had passed, Wayne would sit back and tell stories of what happens when you dig deep. In the mid-’80s, when he was on the trail of a corrupt city-council member named Ramon Velez, the politician (who was a 300-pound man) tried to strangle him in Puerto Rico. Following Donald Trump around Atlantic City in 1991, Barrett was arrested, charged with defiant trespass, and chained by the arm to a cell mate who masturbated all night. Another time, when he came to question a few men in a parking garage, they held his face inches from the revved-up tire of a car because he was investigating their boss.

Roger Stone, once a protégé of Roy Cohn and now a Trump adviser, wrote this tweet after Wayne Barrett died: “Wayne Barrett was a piece of human excrement posing as a human being. Rot in hell, you prick.” In his memoir, Senator Al D’Amato called Wayne “a viper.” He drove Donald Trump crazy. All the bad guys hated him, which is how you knew he was a hero.

It is hard to imagine the Trump administration without Wayne to diagram the webs of corruption that bad guys (and they’re almost all guys) will undoubtedly knit behind closed doors. Just as the president-elect was perfecting a rhetoric that makes the truth feel obtuse, we lost a man steadfast about truth-telling. The man who so effectively got under Trump’s skin departed just as we need to create that itch most.

Wayne Barrett Is Gone Just When We Need Him Most