Carl Bernstein’s ‘Chasing History’ is a tale of dogged survival and ascension to journalism’s illustrious heights

Carl Bernstein’s ‘Chasing History’ is a tale of dogged survival and ascension to journalism’s illustrious heights
‘Chasing History’ is Carl Bernstein’s paean to the beginnings of his craft and the joy he felt once he realised this was what he would do with the rest of his life. Above, Bernstein attends the 2017 New Yorker Festival — All The President’s Reporters — at SVA Theatre in New York City. (Photo: Brad Barket / Getty Images for The New Yorker)

A love song to the beginnings of an iconic journalism career, Carl Bernstein has written a memoir of how he started on the path to becoming a journalist while he was still a teenager. The result is a page-turner for anyone interested in reporters, journalism, and — naturally — with Washington, DC as one of the lead characters as well.

Anyone interested in contemporary American history, American cinema, the circumstances of journalism, and, most especially, investigative reporting is certain to be familiar with the name of Carl Bernstein. With his then-reportorial partner, Bob Woodward, the two were the leaders in the hunt in bringing down a corrupt, dissembling president in the scandal now universally known as Watergate.

In succeeding years, they became the authors (jointly or individually) of an entire shelf of books and reportage on American politics and government decision making at the apex of the pyramid. 

Along the way, they gathered an extraordinary roster of sources — both public ones and those undisclosed, and most famously the man known for years as “Deep Throat”.

The two had sensitive antennae for understanding the ways decisions are actually made by officials — and where the weak links are to be uncovered. They became icons of the profession and their exploits and successes led two generations of idealistic students to become journalists — and, with luck, the next “Woodsteins.” 

It has certainly not hurt the two men’s legendary status that they were portrayed in a critically acclaimed feature film starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford respectively as the two reporters, about their exploits in uncovering the truth about the Watergate scandal. Bernstein, later on in his life, was also somewhat less salubriously portrayed by writer Nora Ephron in a novel and film about their life together.

But Bernstein’s new book, Chasing History, is significantly different from all those other books on that shelf about the big stories in Washington, save for one other volume, Loyalties: a son’s memoir.

This new book is like a classic bildungsroman, the kind of novel that details a hero’s moral education — all those hard-won lessons about life and its pleasures, disappointments. But this new book is not a novel. Instead, it is Bernstein’s own story of his entry into the world of journalism, just as the sector was entering what might well have been its high watermark in national life.

Those circumstances were at their height just before the two men’s Watergate exploits, but as importantly, they were just ahead of the computerisation of the workplace, before the now-ubiquitous cellphones, and naturally also before the internet, email, social media, and 24-hour, all-news cable television. 

Instead, the world Bernstein was entering was the one where creating a newspaper was still one that was built around a hands-on, ink-stained workplace, a factory, really, with a cadre of typographers creating the end-product out of hot lead to put journalists’ words on to paper. And it was a world where reporters and editors were physically separated from the men who set that type and made those printing presses run, almost like two separate castes. 

Back then, reporters chased down stories, schmoozed with sources who were as varied as cops, the usual shady characters of a city’s demimonde, and street vendors with observant eyes.

They had long, boozy lunches and suppers as they argued among themselves over what everything meant. And when they were delivering their work to the newsroom, they often dictated stories from the field over landline telephones from public phone booths. Back in the newsroom, they could be heard shouting “Copy!” the moment all or even just part of a story had been composed at one of the typewriters arrayed in rows in a newsroom, then handed to an editor for review, and then readied for the pressroom. 

Readers who have seen the film, All the President’s Men, will remember the sound of those keys pounding out yet one more story revealing dark deeds, a sound that now is largely banished from the newsroom. Back then, preparing a daily paper was a deeply physical process, as opposed to the near-silent process in the brave new world of computerised writing, editing, and printing that was poised to take over.

But rather than a treatise on the business of the practice of journalism, this book is an intensely personal one where Carl Bernstein tells how he learns to survive at the Washington Star, and as he climbs up the ladder from part-time copyboy to dictationist to city assignments clerk — but how he was thwarted in his aspiration to achieve a coveted position as a full-time reporter.

He describes in detail how he honed the skills to get the reportorial job done, despite whatever physical or human obstacles stood in his way, but he realises the paper he has grown to love does not love him back quite enough. 

The paper’s editors will not put him on that track because he has never earned a university degree since he never actually goes to classes. Instead, Bernstein came on board just as reporters increasingly were being drawn from the ranks of graduates of prestigious university programmes rather than from those who had worked their way up from the bottom tier of copyboy. 

Bernstein explains his lack of a university degree by noting he had been academically dismissed — twice — from the University of Maryland. He had discovered that his classes were nowhere near as exciting as being a small part of a great machine suddenly called into being to cover the 1961 presidential inauguration, the 1963 civil rights “March on Washington”, or the funeral of president John F Kennedy after his assassination in Dallas.   

While Bernstein was still in high school, he had scored a part-time job as one of those all-purpose, ubiquitous newsroom copyboys (a job that no longer even exists) at the Washington Star. He describes how it was love at first encounter with everything about the news business and how he became absolutely certain that was the world he hoped to be a part of for the rest of his life. Something he accomplished to great effect.

Beyond his hands-on journalism education, Bernstein’s volume is also suffused with a kind of warm, sepia-toned, nostalgic texture for his life in Washington and then in the near-in suburb of Silver Spring, Maryland. Beyond his embrace of the world of journalism, the book becomes a love song to the city of Washington, a place he has known intimately from his childhood onward. 

Carl Bernstein was a born and bred Washingtonian, but certainly not a member of a family of anyone who was part of the political elite, the senior bureaucrats, diplomats and backroom dealmakers most people probably think of when they imagine the US capital or see films or television dramas presumably about the city.

Bernstein’s father had been a union organiser for one of the printers’ unions and his parents had been deeply engaged in the activist left. In the 1950s, his father had effectively been driven from the union job he had loved amid the “reds under beds” scares and the McCarthy hearings, investigations, and witch-hunts.

His father eventually ended up running a dry cleaning shop, returning to the world of pressing, cleaning, and tailoring jobs that were, even then, still being held by members of an older generation of Eastern European Jews in America’s big eastern cities. 

But the wide, eclectic circle of friends and relatives of the Bernstein family also gave the young, teenage Carl access to a wide range of people and professions throughout the old downtown of the city. By the time Carl had entered high school, his family had moved to a modest suburban home in nearby Silver Spring and he attended Montgomery Blair High School — Montgomery County’s oldest high school.

Washington was already undergoing a major population shift as working and middle-class white families increasingly fled their old neighbourhoods for the new suburbs of Maryland and Virginia increasingly surrounding the city. 

For someone like this writer, there was a great deal about Carl Bernstein’s world that was especially familiar, having grown up in the same suburb, although Bernstein is half a decade older than I am. His high school and mine were bitter rivals in every sport, and pretty much everything else, but many of the hangouts he describes where he went to with his posse of teenage friends were the very same ones I knew well — from local cinemas to ice cream shops to delicatessens and sandwich spots. 

Given his gift as a writer for painting vivid, precise descriptions of people, places, and encounters, his book has also become a warm evocation of Washington, DC and its new suburban neighbourhoods. This was still a city that remained largely segregated, with something of the feel of a languid southern city (once described by president Kennedy as a city with northern charm and southern efficiency). It was also one strongly divided between its long-term permanent inhabitants and those more temporary denizens from the world of politics and related hangers-on.

Bernstein, from his enthusiasm for the craft he is learning and through his experiences at the Washington Star, found himself seeing first-hand the country’s racial divide, as the civil rights struggle was changing America — and these were insights he almost certainly would not have gleaned in university classrooms in the early 1960s. 

Even though he is still a very junior figure in the paper’s newsroom, largely from his eager hustle, he still had chances to cover the tensions in still-segregated neighbourhood citizens associations; became acquainted with young student activists like Stokley Carmichael; and he supported the paper’s more senior reporters as they reported on civil rights protests, violence by segregation-supporting whites on the Eastern Shore part of Maryland, the 1963 “March on Washington”, and segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace’s speeches at Bernstein’s former university campus.

From all this, still barely out of his teens, Bernstein gained an intimate, first-hand look at one of the core social issues that came to define 1960s America.

Simultaneously, he was also in a prime position to observe the beginnings of great changes in the nature of journalism itself and its place in American society. The Washington Star had been the city’s pre-eminent newspaper for more than a hundred years, and it was printed in multiple editions from midday until late afternoon to give readers the latest breaking news stories. 

Owned by two longtime prominent Washington families, it had long held a reputation for incisive, thorough reporting. It consistently attracted first-class reportorial talent and highly respected columnists such that it was regarded as the city’s best paper, although the Washington Post, especially after its owner Katherine Graham brought in Ben Bradlee to lead it, was already beginning to overtake the venerable Star in circulation, popular features and the talents of its reporters. 

Part of this evolution was coming about because of the way reader habits themselves were changing.

Watching television network news in the evening after work was quickly replacing the consumption of evening papers in nearly every city market and readers were increasingly choosing to get their newspapers first thing in the morning. (Now, of course, more and more readers, if they read a paper at all, are reading them electronically at any time of the day.) Eventually, the Star itself would be closed permanently in 1981, after it had become a vast money-losing property that passed through several successive owners’ hands.

In its last years, it was even caught up in South Africa’s Infogate scandal as one owner drew upon secret Department of Information cash to purchase the paper in a plan to position the paper as a voice in the nation’s capital more sympathetic to apartheid-era South Africa. (That particular owner ended up using the resulting cash he had made from the paper’s resale to buy media properties in California instead — beneficial to him, but useless for the South African government’s intent.)

By now, Carl Bernstein, just in his early twenties, but realising his future could never be at the Star, moved on with one of that paper’s editors to a regional paper in northern New Jersey for a few years — that is, until he realised he really craved the action of a big city paper.

The Washington Post made him an offer, and he leapt at it. And the rest of it, Nixon, Watergate, the accolades and prizes, and the admiration (and maybe some envy, too) of reporters everywhere, followed. But that is truly another story. Instead, Chasing History is Bernstein’s paean to the beginnings of his craft and the joy he felt once he realised this was what he would do with the rest of his life. DM

Chasing History: a kid in the newsroom, by Carl Bernstein, Henry Holt and Co, 2022, ISBN: 9781627791502


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