Charles Sykes / Invision / AP
With the nation hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic and still torn by intractable political divisions, there has never been a more tempting – or more dangerous – time to indulge in nostalgia. Compared to the horrors of recent years, it’s natural to see everything that came before in sepia tones: simpler times when ordinary decency reigned supreme.
Henry Holt & Co.
But nostalgia lies and distorts, of course, and journalists, in particular, are regularly warned to avoid it. (Of course, that doesn’t mean we always take that advice.) It would have been easy for legendary journalist Carl Bernstein to fall into the trap of nostalgia with his new book, The Memoirs. In pursuit of history, which chronicles his early years in the newspaper industry. Fortunately, he doesn’t. While this is a rather loving look at the past, it skillfully avoids all the “Things were much better then” pitfalls.
Bernstein’s memoir begins with his hiring as a copyboy – a runner, essentially – in one of his hometown newspapers, the late Evening Star from Washington, DC His father arranged an interview for his high school son at the newspaper: “He rightly feared for my future – a concern based on hard facts, most having to do with the pool hall, my report card and Montgomery County Juvenile Court. “
Copyboy isn’t (well, wasn’t – the job really doesn’t exist anymore) a glamorous post, but Bernstein was hooked from the moment he stepped foot in the newsroom. “In my entire life, I had never heard such glorious chaos or seen such deliberate commotion as I now saw in this newsroom,” he wrote. “The moment I walked from cover to cover, I knew I wanted to be a journalist.”
Bernstein admits his talents, until then, seemed to be limited to pinball and minor issues with school officials and law enforcement, but he thrived in Star, and had the opportunity to help reporters covering some of the hottest stories of the era, including President Kennedy’s inauguration in 1960. (It was good news for his fledgling journalistic career, but not so much for his college career: “Now that I had covered the inauguration of the President of the United States, Mr. Adelman’s chemistry class interested me even less,” he admits, ironically.)
School woes aside, he stood up Starat an impressive speed, obtaining a promotion from dictator, then, at the age of 19, to municipal office clerk. He had the opportunity to write obituaries and even co-write a fake one, which he and two of his colleagues telephoned to Washington post, the Starthe publication of his great rival (much to the dismay of his publisher, Sid Epstein, who was not amused by the prank).
Bernstein’s memoirs end with his departure from the Star, occasioned by his realization that without a university degree, he would never be hired as a journalist for the newspaper. “I loved the Star, but he didn’t really like me back, “he recalls. Washington post, where he would go on to become one of the country’s most famous journalists, thanks to his work with Bob Woodward, exposing the Watergate scandal.
Bernstein does not mention his later fame in In pursuit of history – it is a memoir limited to a defined period of time, and it resists the urge to look to the future. This gives the book its strength: it does not self-glorify; it is content to be what it is, the story of a few years in the life of a young man taking a foothold in journalism. The book is imbued with a seductive humility; while others might consider Bernstein a living legend, his own opinion of himself seems much more measured. (Although you get the feeling he’s still proud of every “Good Job, Kid” he received from an editor during his stint as a teenage reporter.)
Bernstein wisely refuses to turn the book into a collection of advice for young reporters; it does not offer itself as a model (or, for that matter, as an edifying story). The closest he gets to it is an observation he made as a Cub journalist when considering his senior colleagues: “[T]hey didn’t be fooled by conventional wisdom. I knew enough from talking to them – and from my own limited experience – that they were constantly surprised at where the facts were leading them. After reporting, a story rarely matched their first assumptions about where it would lead. “
And then there’s the nostalgia – or the lack of it. Bernstein refuses to present the past as a journalistic utopia; he notes the various sectarianisms that permeated both the industry and the nation as a whole (and, sadly, still do). Journalists who came of age in the 1960s could be forgiven for rolling their eyes at journalism’s late turn to click bait; Bernstein, however, is more concerned with leaving a portrait of his experience in mid-century America than with giving a lecture.
This is what makes In pursuit of history such a nice book. He’s not trying to be anything other than he is: the story of a young man’s early career at a time many Americans will find unrecognizable. “I got it into my head that all good news stories are pretty much the same: the best version of the truth you can find,” Bernstein writes. And that is exactly what this brief is.