Wayne Barrett, who passed away on January 19, 2017, was in fact a “fierce muckraker” as described in the New York Times’ laudatory obituary published the day of Barrett’s death. Barrett’s unparalleled research scared the political people he wrote about, and his long articles in the Village Voice based on those facts frightened them even more.
Wayne Barrett had no peer when it came to ferreting out the full story of politicians’ tricks, compromises and corruption. He read the transcripts, attended the trials, found the documents, got the witnesses to talk and drew the inferences. There is no better description of the hidden political dealings of mid-twentieth century New York City than can be found in Barrett’s books on the rise of Donald Trump and on the scandals that emerged in the third term of the Koch Administration in the 1980s.
Wayne Barrett was a friend and spoke at a state & local government class here at New York Law School on March 14, 2007. Tom Puccio, a former prosecutor and then a defense attorney, was also a guest at the class. They debated Barrett’s co-authored book City for Sale which detailed the scandals of the 1980s.
Barrett faulted Mayor Koch for not acting on what Barrett believed Koch had to know about the character of the county leaders who supported him – Stanley Friedman in the Bronx, Donald Manes in Queens and Meade Esposito in Brooklyn. Puccio defended Koch. Puccio argued that political leaders had to be pragmatic, to which Barret quickly responded, “What is the difference between a pragmatic decision and a craven decision?” Barrett did not allow for any flexibility when it came to public duties.
Barrett admitted to having a point of view, but defended it as fact based. It was all those facts, and the personality that drove Barrett to get all those facts, that gave Barrett his credibility.
No one today fills the role that Wayne Barrett played. He not only got the facts, he viewed the facts through a constant moral vision. At his death Barrett was lauded by his colleagues of the media, but not so much by politicians. As Barrett told my class in 2007, “I can’t imagine that any politician I ever covered will be carrying my coffin.”