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Legendary reporter Carl Bernstein revisits his early career in 'Chasing History'

<em>Chasing History,</em> by Carl Bernstein
Henry Holt & Co.
Chasing History, by Carl Bernstein

With the nation hobbled by the COVID-19 pandemic and still riven by intractable political divisions, there's never been a more tempting — or more dangerous — time to indulge in nostalgia. Compared to the horrors of the past few years, it's natural to see everything that came before in sepia tones: simpler times when common decency reigned.

But nostalgia lies and distorts, of course, and journalists, in particular, are routinely warned to steer clear of it. (To be sure, that doesn't mean we always follow that advice.) It would have been easy for the legendary reporter Carl Bernstein to fall into the nostalgia trap with his new book, the memoir Chasing History, which chronicles his earliest years in the newspaper business. Happily, he doesn't. While it's a mostly fond look at the past, he deftly avoids all the "things sure were better back then" pitfalls.

Bernstein's memoir starts with his hiring as a copyboy — an errand runner, essentially — at one of his hometown newspapers, the now-defunct Evening Star of Washington, D.C. His father arranged an interview for his high school student son at the paper: "He 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."

Copyboy isn't (well, wasn't — the job doesn't really exist anymore) a glamorous position, but Bernstein was hooked from the moment he set foot in the newsroom. "In my whole life I had never heard such glorious chaos or seen such purposeful commotion as I now beheld in that newsroom," he writes. "By the time I had walked from one end to the other, I knew that I wanted to be a newspaperman."

Bernstein allows that his talents, up to that point, seemed to be limited to pinball and getting into minor-ish trouble with school authorities and law enforcement agencies, but he thrived at the Star and was given the opportunity to assist reporters covering some of the era's hottest stories, including President John F. Kennedy's 1961 inauguration. (This was good news for his nascent journalism career, but not so much for his academic one: "Now that I had covered the inauguration of the president of the United States, Mr. Adelman's chemistry class interested me even less," he allows, wryly.)

Scholastic woes aside, he rose up the Star's ladder with impressive speed, earning a promotion to dictationist, and then, at the age of 19, to city desk clerk. He was given the opportunity to write obituaries and even co-wrote a fake one, which he and two of his co-workers phoned in to The Washington Post, the Star's archrival publication (much to the consternation of his editor, Sid Epstein, who was unamused by the prank).

Bernstein's memoir ends with his departure from the Star, occasioned by his realization that without a college degree, he'd never be hired as a reporter for the paper. "I loved the Star, but it did not quite love me back," he reflects. Of course, he ended up fine — not long after he left, he was hired at The Washington Post, where he would go on to become one of the nation's most famous reporters thanks to his work with Bob Woodward uncovering the Watergate scandal.

Bernstein doesn't mention his later fame in Chasing History — this is a memoir limited to a set period of time, and he resists the urge to look forward. This gives the book its strength: It's not self-aggrandizing; it's content to be what it is, the story of a few years in the life of a young man getting his foothold in journalism. The book is marked by an appealing humility; while others might regard Bernstein as a living legend, his own opinion of himself seems much more measured. (Although you sense he's still proud of every "Good job, kid" he got from an editor during his stint as a teenage reporter.)

Bernstein wisely declines to turn the book into a compendium of advice for young reporters; he doesn't offer himself as a role model (or, for that matter, as a cautionary tale). The closest he comes is an observation he made as a cub reporter considering his senior colleagues: "[T]hey didn't get fooled by conventional wisdom. I knew enough from talking to them — and from my own limited experience — that they were constantly surprised by where the facts took them. After doing the reporting, rarely did a story fit with their first assumptions of where it would lead."

And then there's the nostalgia — or lack thereof. Bernstein declines to portray the past as a journalistic utopia; he notes the various bigotries that permeated both the industry and the nation as a whole (and, unfortunately, still do). Reporters who came of age in the 1960s could be forgiven for rolling their eyes at journalism's late turn to clickbait; Bernstein, though, is more concerned with leaving a portrait of his experience in mid-century America than with delivering a lecture.

That's what makes Chasing History such an enjoyable book. It doesn't try to be anything more than it is: a story of one young man's early career in an era that many Americans will find unrecognizable. "I'd gotten it into my head that all good reporting was pretty much the same thing: the best version of the truth you could come up with," Bernstein writes. And that's exactly what this memoir is.

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Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.