Why Wayne Barrett is Irreplaceable

He was one of the greatest investigative journalists, and knew more about Donald Trump than anybody alive.

David Shankbone

My most Wayne memory of Wayne Barrett is a conversation he had with an intern of his in what was probably the early 1990s. Wayne’s interns at The Village Voice were this parade of young strivers, many of whom today are great investigative journalists in their own right—Tim O’Brien, Jesse Drucker, others.

This one was named Sarah Smith. I don’t know what’s become of her; hard to Google a name like Sarah Smith. Anyway, one day Wayne came into the office in the late afternoon, as was his wont. He worked at home most of the time, out in Windsor Terrace, and came into the Voice only a couple times a week to pick up documents or whatever he needed in those pre-email days.

He worked those interns hard, and of course there were a lot of jokes along those lines, Slavedriver Wayne and so on. He had given Sarah a long list of things to do—people to call, documents to collect, whatever else. He asked for a progress report. She’d run into brick wall after brick wall. She started in on an explanation—so and so wasn’t there, she’d called him six times, the clerks at the courthouse were totally unhelpful, whatever it was. But it was obvious from her narrative that she’d been working like a dog.

She finished. Wayne took the measure of her words for several seconds as he looked down toward the floor before he fixed his eyes up at her and said: “So in other words, you accomplished nothing.”

One was always a little afraid of Wayne, and one certainly did not want to disappoint him. I felt this way, and I was his colleague, not his intern. I was never half the reporter he was. I had my sources, sure, but I didn’t have his sources, by a long shot, and frankly I didn’t have anywhere near his reportorial energy. Then again hardly anyone did. He would follow a trail until it was absolutely positively 1000 percent clear that it was dark. He’d go knock on anyone’s door. He went once—probably more than once—to interview someone, and I mean a hostile interview, in their hospital bed. “Relentless” doesn’t begin to him justice.

I’d call him two or three times a week, just to check in, see what he was doing, see if he had any suggestions for what I should do. Those phone calls could turn into vast soliloquies on a person’s history going back to the 1960s, who they were close to, who they’d fallen out with; a graduate-level class in New York political history.

I also loved the way he’d work himself up in those calls as he started to talk about what he suspected some politician was really up to, or someone’s latest galling act of hypocrisy. The greatest conversation I had with him along those lines happened in 1998. We weren’t colleagues anymore—I’d gone to New York magazine—but we still talked.

As his excellent New York Times obituary by Sam Roberts noted, one of Wayne’s more memorable scoops was his discovery in 1998 that Senator Al D’Amato, then facing a tough (and ultimately successful) challenge from Chuck Schumer, had missed a large number of votes as a Nassau County executive when he first ran for Senate in 1980. D’Amato’s oppo team had discovered that Schumer had missed a bunch of House vote during the 1998 Senate race, and D’Amato pounced on it, and for some reason it resonated. “Missed votes” was all D’Amato said, and it looked like it was going to save him.

So I’m talking to Wayne. Actually, Wayne’s talking to me. You didn’t get a lot of words in on most of those calls. D’Amato’s attacks are outrageous. Doesn’t everybody who runs for Senate miss votes like this? Of course they do! And Schumer, whatever else you want to say about him, the guy’s a total workhorse. But they all miss these votes. In fact, I wonder if Alfonse missed votes when he was first running. Yeah! Tomasky, I’m gonna go look that up!

Bam, down went the phone. Out Wayne shot to the Nassau County whatever office. The next week, he published the scoop that sent Al D’Amato into retirement.

Now. This matter of Trump. Wayne was onto him a quarter-century ago. His book, The Deals and the Downfall, is rich with evidence that one wishes Americans had seen before they voted. Over the course of the past year and a half, I was thrilled to see Wayne finally getting the national attention his work had so long deserved, to see Washington learning what New York had learned ages ago about his investigative prowess. And he was sick while all this was happening. Sick, but still producing scoops, for The Daily Beast, among others. But like everyone else, I figured Wayne’s vast mental hard drive of Trump knowledge wouldn’t matter after November 8.

Many friends have remarked that maybe on some level, he checked out the day he did, January 19, because he couldn’t bear the thought of seeing that man become president. Maybe. But that’s not really the Wayne I knew. I think it’s far more likely that Wayne had a list of 20 Trump stories he was working on and couldn’t wait to get out there. His dear friend Tom Robbins, also one of New York’s great investigative reporters, tweeted the night Wayne passed: “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.” The loss—for the opposition, for journalism, for the country—is just devastating.

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For all his intensity, Wayne could laugh. Not least at himself. That’s a measure of a person’s humanity, a big measure—is he capable of seeing himself as others see him and laughing about it? I remember one Christmastime. Wayne was telling me and LynNell Hancock, another excellent old Voice colleague who now teaches at Columbia, about a trip he took to Macy’s to buy his wife, Fran, a new winter coat.

The idea of Wayne shopping is…amusing. So he’s telling me and LynNell about browsing the coat racks. A certain style of wool coat caught his eye. It came in a range of colors. And the weird thing, he said, was that the black one was one price, while the green one was half that price. “It was unbelievable, Tomasky. The exact same coat!” No, Wayne, LynNell said. It’s not the exact same coat. It’s green! Oh, so that’s it. And he laughed heartily at his poor grasp of the principles of fashion commerce. Wayne probably walked around a place like Macy’s wondering who got the elevator contract and whether it was rigged.

And that admonishment of Sarah Smith? It only took a few seconds for him to realize he was being a little too Wayne, and he laughed.

He is totally irreplaceable.

UPDATE: Within an hour of this being posted Saturday morning, Sarah Smith got in touch. She left journalism but in the appropriate Barrett spirit she’s been a trouble-making lawyer for many years, currently working with victims of domestic violence in Reno, Nevada. When she worked in Bronx Family Court, she became known for the frequent admonition from one judge to “Sit down, Ms. Smith!”