Carl Bernstein

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David Grann was asked to name a quintet of great “True Crime” titles for a Five Books interview, and among the volumes about brutal and strange murders, he made a non-obvious and timely choice with All the President’s Men. 

Woodward’s been a perplexing figure for decades and Bernstein has since the 1970s had to wrestle personal demons that sometimes sidetracked his brilliant career, but there’s no denying their book’s greatness or their impact on American liberty.

Of course, dogged journalism alone can’t protect democracy. If enough citizens and congresspeople don’t care that the President is a crook–a traitor, even–any ink spilled will merely document a society in steep decline.

Grann also explained why he didn’t include on his list Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, which is written as immaculately as any work can be. He’s most troubled by the issue of veracity, which is certainly valid, though I’m also bothered by how the author suspensefully builds to the Clutter family murders, as if he were penning a thriller about fictional characters.

I wonder if Grann considered Hiroshima by John Hersey.

An excerpt:


Your fourth book—All The President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward—comes as something of a relief after all maniacal murdering. But it’s still a pretty frightening tale, and no less so for being so well-known. Talk us through it.

David Grann:

It’s probably the most iconic book of reporting in the United States to this day. It’s written by Woodward and Bernstein, and about their investigation, when they were young reporters at the Washington Post, into the shocking crimes committed by President Richard Nixon. When I first read that book, it gave me a sense that reporting could have a nobility and a moral purpose behind it. Of course, much reporting is not quite like that but…


And, to be clear, the crimes here are moral and political ones. It was articles of the US Constitution that were being butchered, rather than individuals.

David Grann:

Yes. The crimes include everything from breaking into the Democratic National Committee’s offices to bugging political opponents to covering up evidence. I think the book is particularly relevant today which is partly why I picked it. In a day and age when public officials are trying to subvert and muddy the truth, the need for deep reporting to hold these people accountable is as important as ever. This book is a seminal case of that—a case where investigative reporting was essential to revealing the corruption at the highest levels of the United States and to preserving our democracy.

Too often when we think of crime stories, we think of them in one dimensional ways—we think of a bank robbery, or a holdup, or someone breaking into a house—but some of the crimes that are just as important, in some ways maybe even more important, are those that are political in nature. They don’t need to involve murders. This one almost provoked a constitutional crisis.


And the victim count is much higher. It’s a whole nation.

David Grann:

Precisely, and this was a case where the system was driven to the brink but ultimately functioned: Nixon eventually stepped down. Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting played an essential role in protecting the country. This book, and all the books on this list, have left a mark on me, often in different ways, and what I remember most about this one is the doggedness of the reporting. All the President’s Men is a book where there is no fanciful writing—Bernstein and Woodward are not Mailer or Capote. They are journalists writing perfectly clean, decent prose and they have a story to tell, and they tell it in such a way that it has enormous power.


It’s certainly a case in which the symbiosis of the writer and the detective is as clear as can be. The writer in this sense is like a vigilante—he has charged himself with finding the truth that no one else, through lack of will or ability, has.

David Grann:

Yes. I think what makes important true crimes books is not simply the stories they relate but the authors that investigate them. You can have investigative historians like Larson. Or you can have investigative reporters like Woodward and Bernstein. In both cases they are trying to unearth some deeper truth. In many true crime books, the author-investigator is not unlike the detectives he or she is writing about. The skills are very similar, I think, in terms of unearthing evidence and trying to create some kind of structure, plot, or narrative that helps to make sense of the chaos, and piece things back together.•

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The press and Republicans didn’t exactly help matters in regards to the political rise of the hideous hotelier Donald Trump. 

The former initially treated him as cheap summer programming and misrepresenting him as an irreverent, naughty uncle rather than the deeply racist, seeming sociopath he is. But the media didn’t make Trump the GOP nominee–the people did. The Republican establishment been pandering to the racist heart of America for decades, and it turns out there were far more people with Angry White Person’s disease than previously diagnosed. More than economics, that’s what Trump tapped into: unearned privilege under threat. He’s a rich person who feels ripped off because of all he lacks inside, and the same is true today of a good chunk of the country.

Fellow Republicans also didn’t try to drive Trump’s clown car off course for far too long, everyone thinking it was all an elaborate joke, and if they just avoided the scrum, they’d be okay. I doubt, however, it would have made much of a difference if they had acted sooner. John Kasich, exceedingly conservative and eminently electable, never had a prayer of gaining the nomination. Republicans weren’t voting for policy or principles but rather for hatred and nativism. They chose their messenger, their nominee, for very clear reasons. When you select the candidate who mocked POWs and the disabled, and bragged about the size of his dong during a debate, there can be no mistake.

Not everyone agrees, however, with my contention that wags and pols aren’t responsible for Trump’s candidacy. Excerpts follow from: 1) Carl Bernstein insisting at Real Clear Politics that Matt Drudge could have stopped Trump, which I think is preposterous, and 2) Jeffrey Goldberg’s immaculately written Atlantic article, which suggests more moderate members of the GOP could have prevented the “Make America White Again” movement, which I also doubt.

From Carl Bernstein’s comments:

“One of the interesting things we’ve seen in this campaign is FOX has driven Trump’s candidacy less than Matt Drudge,” the legendary journalist said Wednesday on CNN. “Drudge is really a great new factor in this election in terms of media. He is — Drudge, that site has been unapologetically in Trump’s pocket from the beginning. And I would say a large measure of why Donald Trump is the nominee goes to Matt Drudge in much the way that FOX has — when you use the word kingmaker, I’m not sure it goes quite far that way, but it is an influence unequalled.”

Goldberg’s sharply written opening:

The neediness of politicians has always fascinated me; the pathological desire for relevance; the plasticity of belief in the service of self-aggrandizement; the depths plumbed in order to stave off insignificance, which can be as frightening as non-existence itself. One of my favorite politicians, Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, is almost morbidly needy. His desire for attention made him into a brilliant retailer, mainly of himself, but also of his ideas, and intermittently, of his state. His neediness made him greatly entertaining. But it also caused him to betray his own principles.

I recognize that it took millions of Republican primary voters to bring America to this frightening moment, a moment in which a preposterous grifter of authoritarian bent whose mental health is the subject of pervasive and anxious speculation, has become a major-party nominee for president. But it was men like Christie who were indispensable in the creation of this moment. Donald J. Trump could have been stopped. I believe he could have been stopped early, by a concerted effort to unify the party behind a single, viable, non-fraudulent candidate; and he could have been stopped late, if Republicans like Christie had not crumpled before Trump. A handful of honorable men did, in fact, try to stop him. But they were too few in number, and too marginal to make a difference. Collectively, the most influential and smartest Republican elected officials—people who fall into the general category of Them That Knew Better—just might have been able to devise a way to prevent what is happening from happening. But abdication of responsibility and self-debasement in the pursuit of power were the order of the day.•

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America has never been better and worse, the middle fading quickly into oblivion. As with our economy, entertainment and journalism know a disparity of wealth, with some tremendous riches at the top unable to obscure the very large bottom of our Reality TV age. We’re long removed from gawking at anomalies and curiosities in dime museums and circus sideshows, but today’s freaks, those with psychological as opposed to physical scars, have been ushered into the center ring.

In “The Idiot Culture,” a 1992 New Republic article, Carl Bernstein decried the tabloidization of the media and dumbing down of the culture, and that was before Fox News, selfies, rehabbing celebrities and an Internet troll running for President. It’s been a long way to the bottom traveled in a relatively short time. Is this what a decentralized culture has to look like?

An excerpt:

We are in the process of creating, in sum, what deserves to be called the idiot culture. Not an idiot subculture, which every society has bubbling beneath the surface and which can provide harmless fun; but the culture itself. For the first time in our history the weird and the stupid and the coarse are becoming our cultural norm, even our cultural ideal. Last month in New York we witnessed a primary election in which “Donahue,” “Imus in the Morning,” and the disgraceful coverage of the New York Daily News and the New York Post eclipsed The New York Times, The Washington Post, the network news divisions, and the serious and experienced political reporters on the beat. Even The New York Times has been reduced to naming the rape victim in tbe Willie Smith case; to putting Kitty Kelley on the front page as a news story; to parlaying polls as if they were policies.

I do not mean to attack popular culture. Good journalism is popular culture, but popular culture that stretches and informs its consumers rather than that which appeals to the ever descending lowest common denominator. If, by popular culture, we mean expressions of thought or feeling that require no work of those who consume them, then decent popular journalism is finished. What is happening today, unfortunately, is that the lowest form of popular culture—lack of information, misinformation, disinformation, and a contempt for the truth or the reality of most people’s lives—has overrun real journalism.

Today ordinary Americans are being stuffed with garbage: by Donahue-Geraldo-Oprah freak shows (crossdressing in the marketplace; skinheads at your corner luncheonette; pop psychologists rhapsodizing over the airways about the minds of serial killers and sex offenders); by the Maury Povich news; by Hard Copy; by Howard Stern; by local newscasts that do special segments devoted to hyping hype. Last month, in supposedly sophisticated New York, the country’s biggest media market, there ran a craven five-part series on the 11 o’clock news called “Where Do They Get Those People…?,” a special report on where Geraldo and Oprah and Donahue get their freaks (the promo for the series featured Donahue interviewing a diapered man with a pacifier in his mouth).•


As the Washington Post enters its Jeff Bezos era, which hopefully will be better and can’t be much worse than what preceded it, here’s a 1976 making-of featurette for Alan J.Pakula’s excellent adaptation of All the President’s Men, which recalls a whole different eon in American journalism. It’s not a media infrastructure that should be artificially preserved–nor could it–but its contributions were vital.

In the short film, Bob Woodward guesses that eventually the identity of Deep Throat would become known. Surprisingly, even though this was the nation’s burning question for years, its 2005 reveal had almost no traction. Ask people walking down any U.S. street to come up with the name W. Mark Felt, and they probably wouldn’t be able to. It’s like that part of our history has mysteriously returned to the shadows. 

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The opening of a spot-on open letter from Carl Bernstein to Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger as the latter was preparing to be questioned at parliamentary hearings:

“Dear Alan,

There is plenty of time – and there are abundant venues – to debate relevant questions about Mr Snowden’s historical role, his legal fate, the morality of his actions, and the meaning of the information he has chosen to disclose.

But your appearance before the Commons today strikes me as something quite different in purpose and dangerously pernicious: an attempt by the highest UK authorities to shift the issue from government policies and excessive government secrecy in the United States and Great Britain to the conduct of the press – which has been quite admirable and responsible in the case of the Guardian, particularly, and the way it has handled information initially provided by Mr Snowden.

Indeed, generally speaking, the record of journalists, in Britain and the United States in handling genuine national security information since World War II, without causing harm to our democracies or giving up genuine secrets to real enemies, is far more responsible than the over-classification, disingenuousness, and (sometimes) outright lying by a series of governments, prime ministers and presidents when it comes to information that rightly ought to be known and debated in a free society. Especially in recent years.”•


Bernstein + Woodward + Buckley in 1974:

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Almost 40 years before Jeff Bezos rescued the Washington Post from stegosaurus status, the paper was ascendant in the aftermath of its Watergate reportage, and the focus of a 60 Minutes report by Mike Wallace. Watching Ben Bradlee in this story reminds how perfectly Jason Robards captured him, physically and spiritually, in All the President’s Men. “If we hadn’t been right, we would’ve been dead,” Katherine Graham notes in regards to Watergate, but years later integrity was no match for technology.

Quick question: Without pause, can you name the person ultimately revealed as the Woodward-Bernstein Deep Throat source? For decades, this was one of the mysteries most obsessed about in America, and it seemed to have become an afterthought nearly the moment it was solved. I think the name W. Mark Felt means almost nothing to the vast majority of people in the country today. Even before he passed away, Felt had returned to the shadows.

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In a rare moment when he wasn’t watching porno, William F. Buckley spoke with Watergate heroes Bob Woodward (a so-so writer with his own credibility gap) and Carl Bernstein (a brilliant reporter and suspect human being). From 1974.

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John Cook and Hamilton Nolan are consistently good reads at Gawker. The former can sometimes be extreme–his takedown of Mike Wallace went too far, I think–but even in his excess a lot can be learned. Here’s the opening of Cook’s reconsideration of those Watergate wonders Woodward and Bernstein:

“Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s investigation into the origins of the Watergate break-in—which took place 40 years ago yesterday—is one of the most highly mythologized episodes in the history of journalism. It represents the Platonic ideal of what journalism-with-a-capital-J ought to be, at least according to its high priesthood—sober, careful young men doggedly following the story wherever it leads and holding power to account, without fear or favor. It was also a sloppy, ethically dubious project the details of which would mortify any of the smug high priests of journalism that flourished in its wake. The actual Watergate investigation could never have survived the legacy it helped create.”

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