Before Watergate made him a celebrity journalist, Carl Bernstein learned his trade in a now-vanished newsroom.
A reader of Carl Bernstein’s charming new memoir will find the word “Watergate” only once in the 300-plus pages preceding the book’s epilogue. Moreover, that single occurrence refers not to a scandal or mixed-use architectural complex but to an old bit of Washington, D.C., geography, the piece of “the Potomac riverbank at Watergate.” Throughout “Chasing History,” the Washington Post appears not as the paper that made Mr. Bernstein famous but as competition to the one that made him a newsman, the old Evening Star. He tells the tale of a vanished, noisy print world in which “every page was composed, literally, within a rectangular metal form, called a ‘chase,’ that replicated the size of a newspaper page and served as a fence to contain the tens of thousands of pieces of type inside.” Perhaps unintentionally, Mr. Bernstein’s title is a play on words: his book is not so much about chasing after history as it is about “chasing” within those metal rectangles what’s often called history’s first draft.
“Training for the Newspaper Trade,” a short manual from 1916 that remains nestled on my bookshelves, points out how the menial “boy” was always “a plentiful factor in all parts of the establishment,” as well as “the most volatile. It is to be doubted if one in a hundred ‘sticks.’ ” Mr. Bernstein stuck. He arrived at the Star in June of 1960, short and freckled and 16 years old, wearing a suit just purchased from “‘No-Label Louie” Goldstein’s store on Washington’s D Street. Bored at his suburban high school, he was immediately enchanted by the “purposeful commotion” of the newsroom and the just-printed copy of the paper that a production editor put into his hands: “The pages were still warm.” One of his interviewers was the senior editorial writer, Mr. Gould Lincoln, who had begun work at the Star, as a boy, in 1895.
Mr. Bernstein’s progress was sometimes swift, sometimes fitful. Hamstrung by school and later by college (mostly to keep his draft deferment), he would have preferred spending all his time, not just most of it, at the paper. The copyboy soon became a legman (giving notes made at the scene of a story to the more senior reporter who would get the byline) and then a dictationist, “typing the reporters’ stories as they phoned them in.” In performing the latter job, he memorized U.S. senators’ middle initials; kept in mind that there were three h’s in “Khrushchev”; and practiced “thinking like a reporter” himself. He had already seen his first dead body and would soon be washing off the smell of a plane-crash site.
Mr. Bernstein’s earlier memoir, “Loyalties” (1989), attempted to understand the motivations and fears of his leftist parents, onetime members of the Communist Party. In “Chasing History,” he observes that “there’d always been secrets going on around me” and speculates on how the Star may have provided him a “less fraught” family than the one he’d been born into. An awareness of race provided continuity between the two. As a child, Mr. Bernstein had joined his mother and father in demonstrations against Washington’s segregated public accommodations, and at the Star his most passionate focus became the civil-rights movement playing out both locally and nationally. Despite the generally conservative stance of its editorial page, the Star covered racial issues with considerable vividness and heart. It was the paper’s Mary Lou “Ludie” Werner, winner of a Pulitzer Prize in 1959 for her coverage of Virginia’s “massive resistance” to school integration, who told Mr. Bernstein’s bosses that he “might have the makings of an investigative reporter someday.”
He now re-creates in detail how the Star covered the 1963 March on Washington (a helicopter flew film from the Mall to the paper’s rooftop on Virginia Avenue) and reflects upon how “the old fifty-fifty, down-the-middle, half-on-one-side-half-on-the-other approach was giving way to real reporting that was closer to the truth. Because, for all the right reasons, the truth was not neutral.” Mr. Bernstein does not explore the implications of this for our own day, when concerns with equality have given way to a drive toward “equity.”
But his business here is not the present but the past, an evocation of “the peculiar esprit of the Star,” something that was profane, writerly and boozing; equal parts ambition and burnout. The paper’s smells and sounds—the paste pots, the Linotype machines, the 10 bells of a FLASH—are lovingly, even poetically, recalled. Anyone seeking relief from hashtags, tweets and Instagram is free to revel in the book’s pre-cyber lingo of subheads, galley proofs and “stocks final” editions.
Along with the paraphernalia, Mr. Bernstein gives us the people, a few of them familiar, most of them unknown or long-forgotten. He capably resurrects the stylishly dressed city editor Sid Epstein, whose meticulousness and strength made him the man Carl Bernstein hoped to become. Ted Crown, the rough and racist crime reporter, walks these pages along with Mary McGrory, whom Mr. Bernstein remembers for her elegant prose, reverence toward John F. Kennedy, and a sort of imperial absent-mindedness. The city they all moved around in, the most provincial of world capitals, is also rebuilt in these pages: its department stores and dives, its streetcars and sidewalk vendors. Mr. Bernstein writes that before the Kennedy era, “as Washingtonians, our ideas of celebrity tended toward Gypsy Rose Lee appearing at the Casino Royale supper club.”
The death knell for the Star and its “obsolescent charm” was already tolling when Mr. Bernstein first stepped through its doors. The paper had a better grasp of the city, but a worse sense of business and the future, than the Washington Post did, and as an afternoon publication the Star was additionally doomed by the ascent of local early-evening television news. Mr. Bernstein nicely captures one medium’s devouring of another when he recollects being at one of President Kennedy’s live press conferences in the State Department auditorium: the young newsman rushed to a phone booth to relay to the Star what tens of millions had already just heard on their living-room TVs.
The only score-settling in “Changing History” involves Bill Hill, the “close to useless” managing editor who in 1964 insisted on Mr. Bernstein’s demotion from full-fledged reporter back down to dictationist. Even at the idiosyncratic Star, it was now college men, ones who had finished their degrees, that were wanted for a reporter’s job. What’s more, practice couldn’t beat theory: “‘Carl,’ [Hill] said, ‘you’ve really put your shoulder to the wheel, and your work has been great. But experience is no substitute for the training program.’” Wounded pride sent Mr. Bernstein for a short time to the local paper in Elizabeth, N.J. By the fall of 1966, when this book ends, the more buccaneering Ben Bradlee was ready to take a chance on him at the Washington Post.
“Chasing History” contains its share of boilerplate (“at forty-three, JFK was the youngest elected president in American history”), and while Mr. Bernstein has clearly consulted his old reporter’s notebooks, certain incidents and conversations are recalled with an unlikely quotient of conveniently colorful detail. The stentorian tones of the latter-day Bernstein, what one now hears from him on CNN, occasionally sound between its covers, but this is a book chiefly distinguished by nostalgia and warmth.
One can only be glad that the author drifted away from halls of learning, but Mr. Bernstein might rethink beating up on John Milton, whose “Paradise Lost” receives three mentions as a symbol of all things academic and useless. If he would like to try something shorter, in prose instead of poetry, I would recommend Milton’s “Areopagitica,” still the most ringing defense ever made of freedom of the press—what allowed Mr. Bernstein both his youthful joys and his later hours of glory.
Mr. Mallon’s novels include “Henry and Clara,” “Watergate” and “Landfall.”