Carl Bernstein: Extended Profile
By Lowell Ponte
Carl Bernstein, currently a Contributing Editor at Vanity Fair Magazine, is best known as half of Woodward & Bernstein, the pair of Washington Post investigative reporters who broke the Watergate story that led to Republican President Richard M. Nixon’s resignation in 1974. For this reporting he shared a 1973 Pulitzer Prize with Bob Woodward.
Carl Bernstein was born in February 1944, the son of a radical labor union lawyer and activist mother. “I went with my mother, and I was on a lot of those picket lines as a kid,” he told an interviewer in 2002. “I did not like the fact that my parents were of the left. There was a period there that I didn’t like it at all. And I was pretty rebellious about it.”
In his 1989 book Loyalties: A Son’s Memoir (Simon & Schuster), Bernstein describes how he rebelled against his father Alfred’s atheism by insisting on being Bar Mitzvahed. “You don’t want me to be Jewish,” he recounted telling his parents. “This has to do with your politics. And it’s not right. And you don’t really believe in freedom. It’s communism….”
Bernstein acknowledged in this memoir that both his parents were secret members of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA), two of thousands brought by the Party to Washington, D.C. during Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal.
“You’re going to prove [anti-Communist U.S. Senator Joseph] McCarthy was right,” Bernstein quotes his father telling him when he was writing his memoir, “because all he was saying is that the system was loaded with Communists. And he was right…. I’m worried about the kind of book you’re going to write and about cleaning up McCarthy. The problem is that everybody said he was a liar; you’re saying he was right…. I agree that the [Communist] Party was a force in the country.”
In 1960 Bernstein, then 16, began working as a copy boy at the Washington Star, which he later described as “a great newspaper…a better newspaper than the Washington Post at the time.” In November 1963 Bernstein transcribed then-Star (later Post) reporter David Broder’s telephoned story from Dallas, Texas in 1963 on the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
Bernstein entered the University of Maryland but dropped out in 1965 to work full-time as a reporter for the Elizabeth Journal in New Jersey.
In 1966 Bernstein was hired by the Washington Post to cover police, court and city hall beats. In 2002 he described the Post he joined as biased. “At the time, the Washington Post had, deservedly so, a reputation to some extent for slanting stories, and it did.” By contrast, its rival the Star, he said, “really had the best of old-fashioned journalistic, play-it-straight values.” The Star, Bernstein said, also had “great reporters as well as some real characters straight out of [the play] The Front Page,” while the Post was much more sterile, rigid and conformist. “When I went to work at the Washington Post,” he wrote, “I thought I was going to work for an insurance company. I really did.”
In June 1972 one of Post Metro Division’s newest reporters, Bob Woodward, was assigned to cover a petty burglary of the Democratic Party’s headquarters at the Watergate complex. After doing a sidebar piece to Woodward’s story, Bernstein persuaded editors to assign him to cover it as well. The two reporters used marginally ethical methods, including unnamed sources and confidential telephone and credit card records to link the arrested burglars to the Committee to Re-elect the President (called by them “CREEP”).
During the presidential election season, then into the fall and winter of 1972-73, Bernstein and Woodward with the approval of liberal Post editors investigated the burglars’ connections to President Nixon.
The Democratic Party that controlled Congress and its investigating committees soon exploited the Post’s reporting as a pretext to launch political fishing expeditions against the incumbent Republican President re-elected by a landslide in 1972. But in their eagerness to bring down President Nixon, Bernstein and Woodward continued to transgress ethical and legal lines – talking privately with members of a Grand Jury, making a false report of what had been testified before a Grand Jury, and leaking confidential congressional information.
“The reporters [Bernstein and Woodward] apparently believed the government was so corrupted by the President’s power that the press could justify morally dubious means to right the balance,” wrote liberal historian Doris Kearns [Goodwin]. (Kearns was a close friend of President Lyndon Baines Johnson who later married Richard Goodwin, an operative and speechwriter for Robert F. Kennedy.)
In his book Chief Counsel, Samuel Dash, the Democratic Counsel to the Senate Select Committee chaired by Senator Sam Ervin (D.-North Carolina) that investigated Watergate-related issues, wrote that Bernstein and Woodward’s reporting degenerated into what he called “hit and run” journalism based on committee leaks that jeopardized the legal system’s ability to convict and punish the guilty.
One of Woodward’s confidential sources of information (so secret that Woodward refused to divulge his identity even to Post editors) was code-named “Deep Throat” (after a 1972 pornographic movie of the same name). Woodward and Bernstein’s book about how they covered this story, All The President’s Men (Simon & Schuster, 1974), and the movie leftwing actor-director Robert Redford made from it in which he played Woodward and Dustin Hoffman played Bernstein, made much of “Deep Throat,” portrayed in the movie by Hal Holbrook.
But the original Bernstein-Woodward manuscript for All The President’s Men never mentioned “Deep Throat,” according to their literary agent David Obst (who as a young left-wing underground news service editor launched the career of another radical journalist Seymour “Sy” Hersh.) Obst believes “Deep Throat” is a fictional character, a composite drawn from several different people. As recently as 2004 Bernstein denied this, declaring that he will reveal the identity of the real “Deep Throat” after this person dies. Bernstein’s son , who was around age nine when Watergate happened, has reputedly said that “Deep Throat” is former FBI agent Mark Felt.
Because of Bernstein’s and Woodward’s Washington Post reports, based largely on such anonymous sources, and because of a concerted effort by congressional Democrats led by Edward Kennedy and the establishment media to bring him down, President Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974.
The left, which had always hated Nixon and wanted to pull American troops from Vietnam, rejoiced. As a member of Congress Nixon had first earned this hatred by producing evidence that FDR diplomat and accused spy Alger Hiss had been a secret Communist Party member. (The Venona intercepts later added to the evidence that Hiss had been a communist agent operating under the control of East German military intelligence.) Nixon’s success as an anti-Communist had made him a target for hatred and revenge by Communists, including Bernstein’s parents.
Carl Bernstein has always maintained that his motivation in obsessively pursuing Nixon, was purely journalistic. But he has said that growing up under the influence of his parents’ leftwing values “has informed my beliefs about what is important,” and that one of his most important role models is the radical journalist I.F. Stone. In fact, Bernstein shared the views of the anti-Vietnam movement which spear-headed the efforts to bring Nixon down.
Bernstein has written that anti-Communists such as Nixon and McCarthy unleashed a “reign of terror” in America. This is absurd. The only Communists McCarthy sent to jail were those who were held in contempt of congress for invoking the First Amendment (instead of the Fifth) in refusing to answer questions. They did so on orders of the Communist Party which hoped to make them martyrs in the process.
In 1950 Alfred Bernstein lost his job coaching clandestine Communists how to lie to government investigators. He lost his income as part of the ruling elite of the Communist-controlled United Federal Workers of America, through which he had worked since 1937 to unionize government employees and thereby seize control of the government. But Al Bernstein went on to “make a good living by developing of a chain of Laundromats.” In his later years this Marxist-Atheist served “as vice president for development with the National Conference of Christians and Jews and the Eleanor Roosevelt Institute for Cancer Research.” He died in 2003.
Carl Bernstein has said he informed Post editors of his family’s Communist Party background. This raises important questions about the journalistic ethics of the Washington Post as well as Bernstein.
“A case can be made that [Bernstein] should have disclosed the conflict of interest he brought to his Watergate exposes,” wrote New York media consultant Sidney Goldberg in 2003. “After all, he was brought up as a Nixon hater and readers might have been told that his family regarded Nixon as vile, as an enemy. If he were doing a story on IBM and came from a family that was dedicated to the destruction of IBM, wouldn’t we want to know that?”
The Post continued to publish Bernstein’s reporting about Nixon without informing its readers of their reporter’s ideological background. (During the 1950s Nixon had accused the Washington Post of having Communist sympathies, a claim that Bernstein’s Post witch-hunt against him might have resurrected.) Post editors knew that Bernstein’s reporting was pushing the Republican President towards impeachment or resignation, and they knew that most of Bernstein’s reporting was based on anonymous, unnamed sources. As scientists often say about UFO and psychic claims, extraordinary hypotheses require extraordinary proof. But the Post continued to publish Bernstein while keeping secret from its readers information about his family background that would have cast doubt on his anti-Nixon reporting.
Bernstein and Woodward were “asking us for blind trust,” wrote former New York Times Executive Editor Max Lerner. “Not only must they have ‘relations of trust’ (as they put it) with their sources, but also they expect the reader to trust their assessments of the trustworthiness of the sources. It may have been the only way this particular kind of book [their sequel to All The President’s Men titled The Final Days (Simon & Schuster, 1976)] could have been written, but the leap of faith it asks for is more of a jump than most of us can make.” The same must be said for their newspaper reporting, as well as for much that both authors have written since.
In a review of Bernstein’s memoir, fellow red diaper baby David Horowitz, who became an anti-Communist conservative, addressed Bernstein’s hypocrisy in claiming that America was a repressive country. After Bernstein told his Post bosses about his Communist family background, wrote Horowitz: “In anti-communist, paranoid America, home of the reign of terror, the editor of the most politically powerful media organ in the nation told you to get on with the job of removing a president in the middle of an anti-communist war. And what did you learn from that experience? Exactly nothing.”
Bernstein left the Washington Post in 1977 to pursue other career opportunities. He worked for a time as ABC Bureau Chief in Washington, D.C. and later as its correspondent. In addition to Loyalties, he co-authored with Marco Politi His Holiness: John Paul II and the Hidden History of Our Time (Doubleday, 1996).
Bernstein’s second wife, Nora Ephron, described their marriage in her 1983 novel and 1986 movie (starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson), both titled Heartburn. (Ephron also famously captured the then-knee jerk liberalism of the New York Post decades ago with a hypothetical Post headline: “Record Cold Weather: Jews, Blacks Suffer Most.”)
As Bernstein once told the British socialist newspaper The Guardian in reference to Richard Nixon: “You can’t divorce a man’s personal life from his public behavior.”
“The lowest form of popular culture – lack of information, misinformation, misinformation, and a contempt for the truth or the reality of most people’s lives – has overrun real journalism,” Carl Bernstein has said. “Today, ordinary Americans are being stuffed with garbage.”
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