A Personal Remembrance of Wayne Barrett

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Wayne Barrett, 71, dogged investigative reporter and one of the earliest biographers of Donald Trump, died of lung disease Thursday. He just could not live to see Trump's inauguration. 

There is no journalist I learned more from than Wayne. In the late 1980’s, as a low-level city worker, I was riveted by his book City for Sale about corruption in Mayor Ed Koch’s administration. I can literally remember turning the pages, thinking to myself, so this is the way the world works. It made me want to be a gumshoe reporter — like Wayne.

He trained a whole generation of journalists to view every closed door as just a chance to walk up a back alley. He used to speak to student groups wearing a trench coat and a fedora.  “I”m the people’s detective,” he would say, in his deep gravelly voice and a laugh that said: Can you believe this?

I was constantly startled by what he managed to unearth, even when his subject area had already been thoroughly combed through. Wayne’s scoops kept coming and they were the kind that put people in jail and changed election outcomes. There’s scarcely a political figure who could escape Wayne’s scrutiny, not Mayor Ed Koch or Sen. Alfonse D’Amato or Mayor Rudy Giuliani — or Donald Trump.

"I’ve been on his tail a long time," Wayne told WNYC's Leonard Lopate in 1992. "I wrote a series of articles about him in the Voice way back in the 70s that resulted in the empanelling of a federal grand jury to investigate him and he stopped talking to me.”

But then Trump tried another tack, trying to bribe Wayne by offering him a better apartment. "He said to me: 'Wayne, you don’t have to live in Brownsville, I got plenty of apartments!'" Wayne told WNYC last April.

Two decades after that — but still 20 years ago —Wayne and I were arrested at the Waldorf Astoria. We were trying to cover who was going in and out of a fundraiser held by then-Governor George Pataki (Donald Trump was one of the guests). We were asked to leave, but refused. A police officer came. The New York Times wrote it up this way: “There is no evidence that Mr. Barrett or Ms. Bernstein, though among the less placid of press practitioners, misbehaved.”

This was not Wayne’s first arrest. Years earlier, he tried to attend a Trump birthday party in Atlantic City. Much of the police force then moonlighted for Trump. "They slapped handcuffs on me and charged me with defiant trespass. I am a convicted, defiant trespasser," Wayne told WNYC, defiantly.

If you read Wayne’s book on Trump — it was originally called: Donald Trump, The Deals and The Downfall — you’ll understand everything you need to know about the incoming president: how, according to the book, Trump wheeled and dealed, hoodwinked banks, bragged about buying politicians and conned his way to success.

This is what Wayne said about Trump in 1992 on the Lopate show. "My image of him is a guy who was sitting up at three o'clock in the morning in his own bedroom even through the years he was married, calling friends in the middle of the night, stuffing a hamburger down his throat and changing the channel."

In a 2013 article in the Daily News, Wayne wondered aloud whether a decision by Gov. Chris Christie to allow a dirty coal plant near Wayne's summer home to keep belching soot “has anything to do with why a lifelong nonsmoker and runner like me wound up with a lung affliction.”

Wayne had spent a lifetime investigating stories like the the deal to keep the plant open. It was urged on by a rogue’s gallery of lobbyists, including David Samson, the Christie mentor and former Chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, who is now a convicted felon.

I saw Wayne a few weeks ago. Though he was confined by his need to be near an oxygen tank, he was still talking on the phone with sources he’d had for decades, still trying to gather information on the incoming president.  

Wayne didn’t make it to see Trump become president. But he left the world with a lot more journalists who are willing to defiantly trespass to get the story.  We will miss him.