Chasing History: A Kid in the Newsroom
When you hear that a journalist as famous as Carl Bernstein has written a memoir, you might ask yourself what more you need to know about his illustrious Pulitzer Prize-winning career.
Bernstein’s tale is well told. The story of how he and colleague Bob Woodward took down President Nixon is taught in journalism schools, has been depicted in books and films, and has been an inspiration to many a journalist. It’s said that enrollment in journalism schools skyrocketed after All the President’s Men became a cultural touchstone. Even Bernstein’s marriage to journalist Nora Ephron was the inspiration for Heartburn, the thinly disguised novel and movie. It’s not many journalists who are portrayed by Dustin Hoffman and Jack Nicholson!
So what else is there to know? Turns out, we don’t know much at all about how Bernstein became Bernstein, and that’s the subject of his memoir Chasing History: A Kid in the Newsroom, a story both charming and surprising.
For one thing, Bernstein really was “a kid in the newsroom.” He began working as a copyboy for the Evening Star in Washington, DC, when he was only 16 years old and not yet out of high school. Bernstein was raised in DC when it was a small town filled with national figures. Early on in the book, young Carl treats himself to a meal at a fancy restaurant where, across the room, he spots J. Edgar Hoover. It was that kind of town.
Bernstein got an interview at the Evening Star thanks to his father, a staunch union man who had once been a source for a Star reporter during a strike. And that’s some poetic karma right there, given how important a source called “Deep Throat” would eventually become to Woodward and Bernstein.
Carl’s father asked the reporter for whom he was a source if the guy could line up an interview for his erstwhile son who was never a very good student. And that’s how one of the most famous journalists of the 20th century got his start. That and his ability to type nearly 100 words a minute thanks to a high school typing class.
Still in 10th grade, standing five-feet three-inches, and covered in freckles, Bernstein tried to impress the newspaper’s senior editorial writer Rudy Kauffmann with the three stories he’d written for the school newspaper. Kauffmann basically said, ‘We’ll be in touch” and ushered Bernstein out of his office.
And that, as he describes it, is the moment Bernstein fell in love with newspapers. “The door by which I had entered was at the end of a dim, quiet corridor of the sort you would find in any ordinary place of business,” he writes. “The door through which Rudy Kauffmann now led me opening into another universe. People were shouting. Typewriters clattered and chinged. Beneath my feet, I could feel the rumble of the presses.
“In my whole life I had never heard such glorious chaos or such purposeful commotion as I now beheld in that newsroom. By the time I had walked from one end to the other, I knew that I wanted to be a newspaperman.”
Bernstein soon became a copyboy. There are not a lot of books written about these early stages of a newspaperman’s life (one that comes to mind is Russell Baker’s Growing Up); Bernstein’s book is the journalistic equivalent of The Wonder Years.
When you work at a newspaper at an early age in a major city like Bernstein, you can’t help but interact with history. Editors took a liking to the young Bernstein and tested him out by sending him into the field to write up notes that he unloaded to seasoned reporters.
That’s how Bernstein finds himself, at 17 years old, sitting in the stands for the presidential parade on the day President John F. Kennedy is sworn in. Later, he attends a JFK press conference the day after the Soviets beat us to outer space, and still later, young Bernstein finds himself covering the Supreme Court when the justices hear arguments about whether prayer should be allowed in public schools. All before he graduates high school, which, by the way, he barely does.
It’s almost hard to believe these stories, but it was all part of how Bernstein became a great reporter. He took on all assignments in his thirst to learn the trade, and part of that involved following veteran crime reporters on the night side beat where, among other things, he realizes that male corpses tend to have oversized erections when they die. When Bernstein mentions it to a grizzled reporter, he says “Yeah, that’s angel lust.”
In the years Bernstein graduates from copyboy to city desk assistant, he often finds himself in the mix for historic events like the day Kennedy is shot, and when Martin Luther King gives his landmark speech on the Washington mall. Because of that ability to type faster than almost anyone else at the paper, Bernstein is given the assignment of taking dictation from the reporter in Dallas who gives the Star the official word that Kennedy is dead.
It’s all head-spinning but at the same time confounding. Newspapers were undergoing huge changes. Journalism went from being a trade for blue-collar types to a career for Ivy League graduates. Despite years of proving himself at the Star, one of the editors refuses to promote him to reporter until he graduates from college, which Bernstein finds challenging.
He decides to branch out and takes a respite at a newspaper in Elizabeth, New Jersey, before landing at the up-and-coming Washington Post where Ben Bradlee had landed as editor. That’s where this book ends, although Bernstein’s rise was just beginning.