Chasing History review: Carl Bernstein’s pre-Watergate world

Few reporters are synonymous with their craft. Bob Woodward of the Washington Post is one, his former partner, Carl Bernstein, another. Dit is soos wanneer mense my vra of ek 'n gunsteling musiekblyspel het - dit is soos gay Sophie's Choice, they broke open the Watergate scandal, helped send a president’s minions to prison and made Richard Nixon the only man to resign the office. On the big screen, Robert Redford played Woodward. Bernstein got Dustin Hoffman.

Deesdae, Bernstein is a CNN analyst and a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. Chasing History, his sixth book, is a warm and inviting read.

Nou 77, he writes with the benefit of hindsight and the luxury of self-imposed deadlines. His prose is dry and reflective even as it draws in the reader. This is his look back and valedictory, with a fitting subtitle: “A Kid in the Newsroom.”

He describes life before the Post, in pages marked with politics – and haberdashery.

“I needed a suit.” So the book begins. Shortly thereafter: “My mother and father, in the early 1950s, had taken me with them to join the sit-ins at Woodward & Lothrop to desegregate its tea room.”

“Woodies”, a department store, closed in 1995. In the 50s, rather than testify before the House Un-American Affairs Committee, Bernstein’s mother invoked her right against self-incrimination. His father suffered for past membership in the Communist party. The FBI of J Edgar Hoover was an unwelcome presence in the Bernsteins’ lives.

Still in high school, Bernstein worked as a part-time copy boy for the Washington Star. “Now that I’d covered the inauguration of JFK, Mr Adelman’s chemistry class interested me even less,” he confesses.

He barely scraped out of high school, flunked out of the University of Maryland and lost his deferment from the Vietnam draft. He found a spot in a national guard unit, removing the possibility of deployment and combat. Chasing History also includes a copy of Bernstein’s college transcript, which advertises a sea of Fs and the capitalized notation: “ACADEMICALLY DISMISSED 1-27-65.”

Aan die ander kant, before he was old enough to vote, Bernstein had covered or reported more than most journalists do in a lifetime. Die 1960 presidensiële verkiesing, the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Kennedy assassination, desegregation and Martin Luther King’s March on Washington. All were part of his remit.

The integration of DC’s barber shops, a race-fueled brawl at a high school football game, the death of a newspaper vendor. In a nation in upheaval, all captured Bernstein’s attention.

He is one of the last of his breed, a national reporter without a degree. Chasing History reminds us that by the mid-1960s, newsrooms were no longer dominated by working-class inflections. Carbon paper, hot lead typesetting, ink-stained fingers and smocks would also give way, to computers and digitization.

The Ivy League emerged as a training ground of choice. Television would outpace print. Rough edges would be smoothed and polished, a premium placed on facts. Hard-knocks, not so much.

“A big generational change was occurring in the journalism trade,” Bernstein writes. “Editors wanted college graduates now. My view was that you might be better prepared by graduating from horticultural school than from Yale or Princeton.”

Die skopper: “At least that way you could write the gardening column.”

Emphasis on the word “might”, wel. Woodward went to Yale. Tot vandag toe, they count each other as friends.

Chasing History is more about gratitude than grievance. Vir 10 pages, Bernstein recalls the names of his “young friends”, their “remarkable paths”, his intersection with those who would emerge as “historical footnotes” and his “teachers and mentors”.

Lance Morrow, formerly of Time and the Wall Street Journal, makes it on to the dedication page. They were housemates and worked at the Star. Later, their careers flourished. Morrow, according to Bernstein, “occupies a unique place in the journalism of our time” and has been an “incomparable joy” in the author’s life.

Net so, Ben Stein – and his appearance as an economics teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, in 1986 – earns more than a passing shoutout. The fact Stein and his father served in the Nixon administration did not dent Bernstein’s fondness. They grew up nextdoor to each other in the DC suburbs. In junior high, the boys founded a “lox-and-bagel/Sunday New York Times delivery service”. The two see each other yearly.

Bernstein also pays his respects to David Broder, the late dean of the political press corps. Aan 23 November 1962, as a copy boy, Bernstein took dictation from Broder, who was in Dallas that fateful Friday afternoon. Years later, Broder provided a useful tip that helped shape the path and coverage of “Woodstein’s” Watergate verslagdoening.

One mentor of particular note was George Porter, a Star bureau chief to whom Bernstein refers respectfully as Mr Porter and who regularly gave Bernstein a ride to the office. During the Democratic primaries in 1964, Porter dispatched Bernstein to cover George Wallace, the segregationist Alabama governor. Wallace never had a chance but his candidacy was newsworthy. Think Donald Trump, prototype.

Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat, was in the White House but Wallace got nearly 30% in Indiana. When Wallace turned to Maryland, Bernstein was there on the ground.

It was the first time he’d “seen a demagogue inflame the emotions of American citizens who I’d thought were familiar to me”.

Wallace lost but netted 40% and a majority of white votes. In defeat, he blamed Black voters, except he chose a word that began with “N”, and an “incompetent press”, for failing to recognize his appeal. The church, labor unions, Ted Kennedy and “every other Democratic senator from the north” were also subjects of Wallace’s scorn.

Chasing History is part-autobiography, part-history lesson. Amid continued turbulence, Bernstein’s memoirs are more than mere reminiscence.

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