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RIP Wayne Barrett
You can’t talk about Wayne Barrett without talking about Trump. You could talk about Koch and Barrett, Giuliani and Barrett, or anyone Wayne wrote about, but Trump is the notable one. Wayne Barrett himself said, “And so, you know, I’m in a sickbed a lot, but [Trump] gets me up out of it.”
He first encountered Donald Trump as a Village Voice reporter, in 1978, when he requested a series of documents from the State Urban Development Corporation so he could develop a story on a series of multi-million dollar real estate deals involving Abe Beame and the upstart (inasmuch as a privileged dullard who could fuck up a ham sandwich can be an upstart) Donald Trump, who had been contracted to develop the Hyatt Hotel in Midtown and a convention center on a series of unused rail yards.
He sat down in a conference room with a series of documents that the Urban Development staff had put together for him. Suddenly, the phone rang and Barrett answered. Who else could it be but Donald, the king of “all publicity is good publicity” himself, asking him about the story Wayne was putting together about him.
‘79, Barrett’s story makes the Village Voice cover. He’s flashing his teeth in a blue patina, the whole thing looking like an Impulse sleeve to the worst jazz album ever. It was one of the first introductions to Trump at large.
Barrett’s story detailed the sort of backroom deals you’d think far-fetched if they were in a James Ellroy novel. Trump got the job when nobody knew who he was or cared because former mayor Abe Beame and Fred Trump ate lunch together. Granted, there was history between the two besides, but Donald Trump didn’t come from the aether. He came from palms his daddy greased and incestuous New York political entanglement. Trump was saved because he knew people who knew where the bodies were.
The story wasn’t really a break for anyone. It didn’t damn Trump or save Barrett.
In ‘91 Barrett wrote an unauthorized biography, Trump. It flopped.
In ‘91 Trump was filing for corporate bankruptcy.
Barrett continued writing about New York. Donald Trump hosted a game show.
Then Trump became the frontrunner. Suddenly journalists were looking for leads and using the mini-library of Trumpenalia Barrett had assembled in his basement.
Then Trump won.
Even still, Wayne was working. Wayne broke a story a week before Trump became President, described in the New Yorker as “[revealing] a pro-Trump super PAC, backed by the billionaire Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah, had been making payments to [Rudolph] Giuliani’s law firm [Greenberg Traurig],” when the rest of the world was writing about how Clinton was going to cream Trump with hackwork “bigly” and “yuge” jokes. I’m not immune. I said back in my Donald Trump essay that he wouldn’t win. I’d retract the story and whatever internet back patting I got from it to make Hillary Clinton President, and I was about as excited about her possible presidency as I am to pay off parking tickets I didn’t deserve.
On January 19th Wayne Barrett died of terminal lung disease. A day before his nemesis becomes President. God doesn’t play dice, but he’s a hell of a humorist. I can’t say I blame him for dying. I’ve been heartbroken, but I can’t imagine what watching a guy whose bluff I’ve been calling for 40 years become President.
When I began writing that aforementioned Trump piece, I planned on it being stylized as a “Approaches to Donald Trump” article entitled “The Tao of Trump”, the plan being we’d look at Donald Trump through several different lenses. I ditched the concept because there’s not much to dig into with Trump. Our Thomas Sutpen is the sort of guy who eats a sirloin steak well done and gets into spats on the Howard Stern show.
During my research, Wayne’s expose stuck with me the most. I am obsessed with how film noir reflects the contours of our ugliest collusions and basest desires and Wayne’s story made me think of Chinatown’s water rights and the ill-fated but eminently watchable--provided you write phrases like “contours of our ugliest collusions and basest desires”-- second season of True Detective and its focus on a rail corridor that cuts through a industrial city.
Noir is a genre about where the bodies are buried and the inherent profitability of ignoring the shallow graves we dug. We’re a nation built on the bones of the slaves, indigenous peoples, and the work of poor people. Our builders are gassy mediocrities borne of old racists and their connections. We build cystic monstrosities in the Mojave desert and dry up Lake Mead so blue hairs can eat buffets and gamble on slot machines. Noir is an American story. Like jazz, we invented it and perfected it.
Donald Trump is also an American story. He’s a boy who believed he could do anything. Nobody tells their kids they can’t be astronauts. Most of them can’t. Donald Trump believed he could be President. And he made it so. But how he made it is integral to our nation, and that’s through glad handing and collusions and willful ignorance of any consequence. Trump was too big to fail before banks, because he’s always had something of the id of the country in him. Our viciousness, our largesse, our belief we’re great despite the evidence otherwise.
But where there’s a Trump, nature breeds a Barrett. He too is an American story, as is the dance between honesty and hucksterism, and that there’s even a dance is proof we may be saved yet.
Committee for the Re-Election of the President alum and OG ratfucker Roger Stone became enamored with Trump and ended up working on his campaign. When Barrett died, he tweeted that if you stand on a river long enough you’ll see your enemy’s bodies float by. But it’s all just a matter of staying alive, and history already remembers Barrett better than it does Trump or Roger Stone. Everybody gets dumped in the river. You might as well be honest and brave before you go.