"Chasing History: A Kid in the Newsroom"| Reviewed by Bill Schwab
Carl Bernstein is primarily known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting with Bob Woodward on the Watergate scandal. But in this memoir, “Chasing History” we see a different Bernstein, a high schooler in love with newspapers who follows his passion with perseverance and self-confidence.
“In my whole life I had never heard such glorious chaos or seen such purposeful commotion as I now beheld in the newsroom,” he writes when he first visits a city room. “By the time I had walked from one end to the other, I knew that I wanted to be a newspaperman.”
Bernstein landed his first newspaper job as a copy boy at the now-defunct Washington “Evening Star.” Even though he was a teenager, he won the position because of his 90-words-a-minute typing skills, his familiarity with the Washington DC metropolitan area where he grew up, and, not least of all, his persistent finagling.
The teenager was not interested in the academic world, and he spent more time at the “Evening Star” than at the Montgomery Blair High School where he was enrolled. He admits, my father “Rightly feared for my future—a concern that was based on hard facts, most of them having to do with the pool hall, my school report cards, and the Montgomery County Juvenile Court.”
However, he did graduate and immediately moved up in the newspaper’s organizational ladder to dictations (taking dictation over the phone from reporters in the field), city desk clerk, and obituary writer. He was eventually assigned to do political reporting and investigative research.
The author engagingly describes his role as a reporter at key historical events: Martin Luther King's March on Washington, President Kennedy's inauguration and funeral, and the Beatles' USA tour. He remembers and describes the cultural milieus in which he worked: the Selma-Montgomery March and the hostility to civil rights, the Bay of Pigs fiasco, political patronage, the all-white male newsroom, and the integration of Washington DC Barbershops. “Now that I'd covered the inauguration of JFK, Mr. Adelman's chemistry class interested me even less,” he confesses.
Journalists David Broder, Myra McPherson and Haynes Johnson informally educated Bernstein as he shadowed and imitated them. He flunked out of formal classes at the University of Maryland, and this failure ironically landed him at the “Washington Post” when the “Evening Star” enforced its policy that all reporters had to be college graduates. The “Post” picked him up right away.
Bernstein’s portrait of the 1960s newsrooms is captivating: the stacks of books and papers, the gunmetal desks, the manual Royal Typewriters, the smeary carbon paper, the last-minute bulletins, the hot lead typesetting and the printing press that rattled the whole floor put the reader in the midst of the action.
“Working for the “Star” was a little like being part of a troupe of actors in a repertory company,” he writes, “all of us absorbed in the same project, all wrapped up in the stories, the work. We were smart, we never had enough money and we often had too much to drink.”
This warm and inviting read is written on three levels: first, it is a compelling story about a nameless kid who grows up to be a prize-winning journalist. Second, it is an excellent chronicle of the 1960s newspaper business and the important communication role it played in that society and finally, it is a story about how racial unrest dominated the front pages of newspapers.
“Chasing History” is both autobiography and history. Published by Henry Holt and Company, the 371-page book is thoroughly indexed and holds two sections of historic newspaper-related photographs.
About the Author: Carl Bernstein is the author or co-author of five bestselling books including “All the President's Men” and “The Final Days” both written with Bob Woodward. The two men and the “Washington Post” shared the Pulitzer Prize for public service for their coverage of the Watergate story. Currently, he is an on-air political analyst for CNN and a contributing editor for “Vanity Fair.”