Forty Years Ago, Journalist Wayne Barrett Was Uncovering the Lies of the Queens Con Man While The New York Times Fell for Trump Scams
Of all the books about Donald Trump this year, the one that best explains the man, his rise to power and his inability to be president recalls the stellar work of a journalist who died almost four years ago.
The book is Without Compromise. a collection of columns by the late Wayne Barrett of The Village Voice, the first journalist to cover Trump seriously. Way back in 1979, when The New York Times was running puff pieces that helped propel Trump to national celebrity, Barrett revealed the real Trump with hard facts and moral clarity.
Just three of the collection’s 19 reprinted pieces are about Trump, but they are the foundation of all Trump coverage. They are rich with lasting insight and reasonably can be read as the alpha and omega of Trump coverage.
Trump has a pathological need to introduce an evil twist into every deal, what another real estate developer called Trump’s ‘moral larceny.’
The Voice was shuttered two years ago. Then the Times woke up, seeing the light on the Trump it so utterly failed to investigate during the 2016 campaign. It noted Barrett’s “obsessive work on Donald J. Trump has become a resource for reporters covering the president today.”
In cold, clear prose Barrett laid bare the rot behind Trump’s carefully polished patina of success and respectability. The rest of the book is a college degree in corrupt politics and how journalists could, but largely don’t, cover government.
Barrett was a Brooklyn schoolteacher and community organizer who wangled a job with the Voice, the immensely profitable alternative weekly founded by Norman Mailer and three other journalists who couldn’t abide the straitjacket of conventional 1950s journalism.
Life, Not Journal School
Like many of our best journalists, Barrett got his approach not from journalism school, though he did graduate from the one at Columbia University and later taught for years at Columbia, but from life experience. He worked in cash-poor Brooklyn neighborhoods as a teacher and community organizer, which taught him about life beyond the glitter of Manhattan shown in his first Trump piece.
“Trump’s problem isn’t so much what he’s done as how he’s done it,” Barrett wrote after spending 15 hours interviewing Trump and many more digging through government records in New York and Philadelphia, interviewing law enforcement sources, competing developers and politicians.
Barrett saw right off that Trump’s money lust was not his worst attribute. Trump has a pathological need to introduce an evil twist into every deal, what another real estate developer called Trump’s “moral larceny.”
Trump, soon realizing Barrett was no lightweight feature writer he could romance, tried threats. When that failed, Trump turned to bribery. He offered Barrett a free Trump Tower apartment.
“Trump was testing me,” Barrett wrote, “to see what would work–convinced that either fear or the suggestion that I could have some undefined future relationship with his wealth or his influence could help shape the story. He had only to figure out what I wanted. Every relationship is a transaction.”
It never occurred to Donald that some people are immune to flattery and threats and don’t have a price. Nearly a decade later he tried the same strategies on me.
The three pieces about Trump in Without Compromise paint a more accurate, concise and damning portrait of the man than the later work of any other journalist including me.
Journalist and Barrett student Eileen Markey chose the 19 pieces and rounded up notables in academia and journalism to write accompanying essays. Markey is one of many journalists who survived Barrett Bootcamp, the toughest journalism training in the country.
Barrett was an obsessively demanding boss, beloved by those who learned technique from him and put up with his famous yelling. Wayne called me once to basically say he needed to yell and no one else was around. So I patiently listened to my friend for 90 minutes.
Once Barrett shouted “You’re fired!” at intern Marcus Baram, returning two hours late from an errand. Baram, later a Fast Company masthead editor, smartly took his seat and got to work. Barrett soon forgot his command.
Those who survived Barrett Bootcamp became some of the best journalists in New York. Among them: Timothy L. O’Brien of Bloomberg, Jennifer Gonnerman of The New Yorker, Errol Louis of NY1 television, Andrea Bernstein of WNYC, Jarrett Murphy of City Magazine and Markey who put together the anthology.
You can get an idea of how focused Barrett was on hard facts that matter from a story his wife Fran told my wife and me one night over dinner near Atlantic City. We lived there and the Barretts had a summer home there purchased with money from Barrett’s 1992 book Trump: The Deals and The Downfall.
“Wayne came back from interviewing Trump and was regaling me with this lie and that by Trump and I kept asking him about the apartment – what’s it like, Wayne?” Fran said.
“What? Oh, the apartment? It’s big.”
Truth’s Surprising Consequences
Barrett did his work with such decency that after he died at age 71, the day before Trump took office in 2017, his memorial service was filled with politicians he had exposed or influenced.
Both New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Chuck Schumer, the U.S. Senate minority leader, showered praise on Barrett.
Schumer told stories of how, but for Barrett’s journalistic policing when he first held office, he would never have made it to the Senate. Schumer said Barrett made him realize he was being seduced by money and “fancy women,” adding that’s why he married a Brooklyn cabbie’s daughter.
I visited Wayne at his Brooklyn townhouse one afternoon when the door was opened by Alan Hevesi, the former New York State comptroller who had gone to prison after Barrett exposed his criminal acts.
As the three of us ate lunch Hevesi told me he had no hard feelings. “I did it, Wayne nailed it down and reported it. How can I hold a grudge against a man who wrote the truth?”
That’s not the way Trump reacts.
Journalism, Barrett taught, is the only occupation where you get paid to tell the truth. That’s the job of journalists, start to finish: Tell the truth as best you can uncover it. That’s why Trump calls journalists the enemy of the people. He can’t stand the truth. Without Compromise is nothing but truth.