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Wayne Barrett, The Best Reporter I Ever Knew

The corrupt can breathe a little easier with the death of this investigative journalism stalwart.

Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times/Redux

My first day working for Wayne Barrett in the fall of 2004, I was one of six terrified interns, all of us sitting in a windowless room at The Village Voice, listening to a man in Brooklyn barking orders over a speakerphone. I was somehow nominated the stenographer and tapped furious notes—pausing to stare at the others in bafflement—as this loud and blunt man, Wayne Barrett, rattled off assignments.

One of us needed to call the comptroller, immediately. (What was a comptroller?)

Another needed to start doing a property records search for a woman in Texas. (What was Lexis-Nexis?)

Another needed to track down a former arms dealer in Lebanon.

Someone call Cardinal Egan, around lunch, Wayne said.

And there was this book he needed. About the CIA and the Saudis.

I was 24, newly married and fresh off a couple years working at an English-language magazine in Indonesia. I’d interned at the Atlantic and written a few pieces here and there. I thought I knew a few things. I did not.

I spent that first day on the phone, sweating, typing, talking to one salty New York source after another. There were so many clips to file and facts to sift through. I was flustered when I signed off with one promising source, and I couldn’t remember our phone number. Oh, god, I said, apologizing.

“Take a deep breath,” the man said, waiting for me to recover. I was not the first frantic Barrett intern he’d spoken to.

For nearly 40 years, Wayne Barrett was an institution at the Voice, where he took down crummy landlords, battled attorney generals and mayors, and maybe most importantly, hounded the sleazy dealings of a horrible man who is now our new president. For me, though, Wayne was more than a boss.

It was nearing the end of that first day. I’d never worked so hard or been so sure of doing important work. Wayne had this way of making you feel like you were on the biggest hunt of your life, that there was no time for anything but excellence. Exhausted yet buzzing, I called him one more time, wanting to summarize what I’d found.

“Yeah,” he answered. (That’s always the way he answered.)

I told him who I was and that I’d finished a day of reporting but that I wanted to walk him through a few leads. I could feel this long pause. Then he cleared his throat.

“Naaaaaythan,” he said. (He always seemed to draw my name out, like he was seeing how it felt to sum up a person with one word.) “How about you and a couple others go home, get dressed, then go to the Republican National Convention.”

It wasn’t a question or request. So I raced home to my grim little apartment in Williamsburg, pawed through dirty clothes, and settled finally on the suit I’d been married in.

Then I walked onto the floor of a vast hall in Midtown and stood 15 feet from Dick Cheney, close enough to see his spittle and waxy forehead. The crowd yelled “flip-flop, flip-flop.” It was grotesque. It was amazing. I wanted to do battle.

I eventually tracked down that weapons dealer and spent my own money talking to him over a scratchy long-distance line to Beirut. I spent days convincing a reclusive pilot in Alaska to talk to me about what a president was up to one summer in the 1970s. But the most exhilarating moment was the day I wore my wedding suit again—this time to a building on the Upper East Side.

This was a source Wayne really wanted. I’d been given reason to think the guy would talk. But instead of cold-calling, my plan was to talk my way past the doorman and knock on the man’s door. I took the 6 train uptown, to a building whose name you would recognize, and indeed the outfit convinced the doorman, and suddenly I was on my way up.

I knew Wayne would be proud. And I wanted nothing more to impress him, to bask in his approval, and not to anger him. (His fury was white hot, unforgettable.)

But just before I knocked on the man’s door, I turned around and went downstairs again and mumbled apologies to the doorman and took the train to my desk. I sat there quivering. Never again would I consider myself an investigative reporter.

I don’t think Wayne ever forgave me, or fully understood. Soon after that day, I was hired on as an editor at the Voice, climbing to as high as fourth on the masthead. Then I went to Rolling Stone. Then I walked away. Nowadays, I teach writing and live in Los Angeles—about as far from that windowless room as I could get. But two years ago, I visited Wayne again, at his place in Brooklyn.

“Naaaaaythan,” he said one more time, reclining in his chair, obviously in some discomfort. His illness was stable at this point but I could tell it had taken preparation to block out an hour to talk to me.

I told him about my years living in the Middle East, my wife, our little girl. I mentioned I’d written a book.

“Of course you wrote a book. But … it’s about your feelings?” he said.

I was embarrassed. It was true, I’d gone to incredibly newsy places (Beirut, Iraq, Yemen, etc.) but instead of taking down the Saudis or exposing a network of arms dealers I had written an entire book about my feelings.

That day on the Upper East Side, when I declined to cold call a stranger for a story, I realized I had lacked the clarity or conviction that drove a man like Wayne. I felt more unsure, filled with doubt, attuned to the more slippery nature of truth. Which was largely bullshit. Wayne’s full-bore dedication to being blunt and taking down those who cheated and lied and stole was something that would always inspire me.

I sat inches from him, aching for things to be different. I was close enough to hold his hand, only for a moment. Since I’d last seen him, my father had died, and I realized this moment might be my last with my mentor, and that in an odd way he was probably the closest person I had to a living father figure.

“Listen, I have this hot, great story—just for you, if you want it, for your second book,” he said. “All the boxes are in the basement.”

Then the phone rang and someone in the other room answered and I could see Wayne revving up, wanting to know who was calling, what scoop they had, what was the next story he could write.

It kills me that I wasn’t in better touch in the last months. I am haunted by those boxes in the basement, thought I take comfort in knowing others have been down there. May they write fast enough.

Here’s a thing: Wayne’s interns were always obliged to memorize both of his phone numbers. (He had two, and both would often be busy when we called.) I’ll never forget those numbers. I’ll also never be the reporter Wayne wanted me to be.

Few of us could. There’s a photo that used to hang in the old intern room. It’s Wayne, in a tight shirt that places the scene in the early 80s. He’s being chased by a fat man with a stick, who is mad and chasing him away, because all Wayne wanted was the truth.