Ep. 118 - Carl Bernstein

Update: 2017-02-02


Legendary journalist Carl Bernstein talks with David Axelrod about his memories as a young copy boy at The Washington Star, the details of the landmark reporting he did that exposed the Watergate cover-up and led to President Nixon’s resignation, how he grappled with the forces of celebrity after he became a cultural figure, and what he thinks investigative reporters should be looking at with regard to President Trump.

Following script is auto-generated by Speech to Text Technology:

the board for the acts files comes from rockin' mortgage my Quicken loans lift the burden of getting a home loan with rockin' mortgage and get a secure transparent home loan approval in minutes skip the bank of the waiting then go completely online at Quicken loans dot com slash X Files This podcast is brought you by sixty DB listen to conversations that go beyond the headlines business sports politics today's news plus all of your favorite podcasts download the free sixty DB at Today the the the the the and now from the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and CNN The X Files with your host David Axelrod the the the Every journalist age was inspired by Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post and his partner Bob Woodward together they broke the Watergate stories in the early nineteen seventies that brought down President Nixon but in many ways saved our democracy they're both still active still doing great work Carl Bernstein at CNN and elsewhere and I sat down with him the other day to talk about the Watergate years and where we are today the Carl Bernstein welcome you know we we've led somewhat parallel lives except for the fact that you did reporting that almost saved the room that may have saved the republic but we but I want to start off by asking you this Why was the FBI sticking out your Bar mitzvah I come from a left wing background both my parents were real people and it was the McCarthy era and they had been under FBI surveillance for a good number of years and when I did a memoir about growing up in the left wing family during the McCarthy era called loyalties A son's memoir I got my Paris FBI files which came up through chest high and I went through them indeed was a report from T two was he was called observing and taking down license tags at my bar mitzvah any any reviews of your Torah portion into a mist of Torah is the scene totally unfamiliar with with the whole rig are all talk about that because you know I I had somewhat similar experience my my parents weren't as engaged in the left is your parents were in fact have to tell you my father who was an immigrant from Eastern Europe was a kind of a free thinking guy and when his twenty one years old and registered to vote in nineteen thirty one he registered as a communist ah and this came up years later when someone put him down as a reference for promotion in the army and they had a hearing and decide if you really communists he would put Dan Hughes a Republican he would put the window put down that he was a Communist so us and that was true my father the only organized thing ever belonged to was a baseball team and the army but um But tell me Oh let's talk about the environment back in the you know what are the things that I deal with sin in that memoir the fact that my parents had been members of the Communist Party a one time but really what my parents and your dad were the government right well the history is my father graduated from Columbia Law came to Washington to be an investigator for a great investigation of the railroad trusts during a New Deal the investigation resulted in the breakup of the railroad trusts and during that process he became active in the government workers union and after this investigation had done its work he decided to go to work for the union then call United Public Workers as as an organizer and so he then spent a good number of years as a union organizer for government workers here and in in Washington and in San Francisco and really built it into a force of this particular public employees union which is really the first federal workers and municipal workers union in the process this was a non native Washington second generation native my mom is born here and that this was a Jim Crow segregated town I went to segregated public schools in the District of Columbia until Brown versus Board of Education in the middle of the six grade and the companion case to Brown actually is holding purses sharp which is the District of Columbia school system of the court decided both cases on that day in nineteen fifty four but this town was rigidly segregated African American could not eat in a downtown restaurant could not get served could not stay at white hotels and so my parents were among the leaders and very active in trying to de segregate this town and succeeded at it in public accommodations particularly restaurants I was on picket lines is a little kid downtown trying to integrate lunch counters which we're successful is doing in doing we are white kids black kids swimming pools here were segregated by the District of Columbia government they were drained during some summer so people couldn't swim together in them it was a terrible terrible blight on the country and so that's really what my parents and J Edgar Hoover was also a native of this town and he's probably I think you know the most important non presidential figure in many in American history of twentieth century in his power was immense and then he too looked at the segregation as a left wing activity as is evident from my parents FBI files so that's really the background of how I grew up and then from December the way you know that was at a time that was an era Jewish community provided a lot of support for the civil rights movement the bond between the civil rights movement in the Jewish community was very very tight and became frayed in the late sixties but well certainly by the time of the March on Washington the American Jewish community was was very much involved in desegregation of this was a southern town in the organized Jewish community here was not so involved I think there was an awful lot of Jewish organizations that felt that did choose might be hurt if they were too active as a community in organized desegregation in it in the town this was really a movement led by local people mostly on the last in terms of the whites who were involved and the African American community around this and in Washington D C It was a struggle that went on for a good number of years until it was decided in courts before Brown versus Board of Education that public accommodations to black people have a right to eat in restaurants downtown you meanwhile it's interesting to me because your father was obviously in a kind of class was willing and eager to challenge authority which seems to me a prerequisite for being a good journalist so you're raised with those instincts or you got interested in journalism at a very early age I was a pretty terrible student in school now and but the one thing that I could do was I was capable of writing a little bit and I'd taken a journalism course in in the tenth grade and most of the time was spent at the pool hall and in Silver Spring Maryland move to the suburbs all my eleventh birthday love from the city and my father got the idea since it was questionable I was going to get out of high school much less go to college that maybe he could get me a job as a copy boy at the Washington Star the conservative afternoon paper in Washington a great great news and and the reason for the star as opposed to the Washington Post was that the star this conservative newspaper in its editorial policies had covered my father's union and a strike by the government cafeteria workers was great fairness whereas The Washington Post the liberal paper in town have a government affairs columnist who had red baited the union and the strike and so I got this interview for the job when I was sixteen as a copy boy and I took one look at this newsroom and thought it was the most remarkable thing I'd ever see wire was in excitement what was going on in energy and and people were running copy was it straight out of the front page it was the star was very much an old fashioned newspaper more so than in the post in terms of being a tradition I went to Washington Post I thought was going to work for insurance company it was kanna so calm and low key and people didn't yell copy in fact there's a hilarious moment during during Watergate at the height of everything where there was a copy desk editor who had been at the store with me and and some huge story was breaking an egg he which you never Post copy I instinctively jumped up her mind as well as share your enthusiasm it was amazing it was amazing and I did not get hired I was just around my sixteenth birthday and I was star still growing is probably about five ft to five foot three and they told me to come back when it was a little older and I started coming down every few days due to make a nuisance of myself and say that that I really wanted to go to work there is a copy boy and had me take a typing test and one of the things that in my terrible student hood that I had done was I was so sick of taking shop classes and making useless wooden trays for for it to put toothpicks in with with chiseled fish wooden fish is that I took typing with the girls in the tenth grade and I could type ninety words a minute so I pretty damn good I was very good as typist yeah so I took this typing test it the star and the guy who was in charge of hiring copy boys thought it was astonishing that I could type ninety words a minute and he hired me and I went to work in the summer of nineteen sixty eight the height of the Kennedy Nixon campaign is a copy boy and it's been a wonderful life or there or were there reporters at this time and they had your mind and what they came over after from the sun but who was there we hit it was an group of reporters Mary MacGregor ers Margaret's favorite copy boy Haynes Johnson yeah just great great reporters all across the board as well as a collection of drunks and hangers on but by and large as those Andrews the staff was fabulous and we beat the post day in day out it was a better newspaper than the Washington Post in early nineties that softened the case for the second newspaper you know you have to be scrappy when you're not the number one paper in town well the post was the Number one paper by circulation because in nineteen fifty four Katharine Graham's father and her husband Catherine's husband had the foresight to buy the Times Herald competing newspaper and combine it with the Washington Post which was by no means the biggest paper in town at the time in fifty four and the genius of this was really that the Times Herald had a huge number of comic pages and the combination of the Times Herald Comics with the Washington Post comics meant that the Washington Post Times Herald this combined papers it was called for a while had more comics than any paper in America as well as the circulation that built it up and it was an era in which this early sixties in which television news was beginning to come into its own afternoon newspapers were in trouble because it was very difficult to get the Stars snapped in an afternoon paper was very difficult to get trucks out to the suburbs because of rush hour traffic rush hour traffic and circulation has increasingly moved to the suburbs along with us especially in Washington DC white flight after Brown versus Board of Education to the suburbs so here's the thing about this town that I grew up in a race determined almost everything in this city my years at a Washington star in which I was able to do almost everything that you could dream of as a as a teenager I became a reporter at nineteen there is at the starry though that's what this memoir is about my years at the star which ultimately ended in failure because the star had made me reporter insisted that I had to graduate from college if I was going to stay on the staff and there was no way I was going to graduate from college so at the end and at the end of this book actually the more I'm writing I leave the star broken because I know I don't want to finish college and I go to Elizabeth New Jersey with the favored editor from the star who became the editor of a paper in Elizabeth but my years at the Star nineteen sixty to sixty five our bracket to Civil War one hundred years later by exactly a hundred years and of course it's the era of the civil rights movement it's the Kennedy Johnson years and I was as a nation and the Kennedy assassination which I cover in fact you know watching we're doing this during the week of Donald Trump's inauguration and the first inauguration and I covered was Kennedy's inauguration in the in the cold I was out there on Pennsylvania and Perry are most on coverage covering the crowd all day that it was freezing but but I was able to do everything I was kind of adopted by by these fabulous older people to star who saw some talent in me that perhaps I didn't even see in myself and they and they let me do amazing things and by the time I'd been there year I went I became what was called a dictation this and a dictation is especially good afternoon newspaper was important because you put on a headset reporters out there dictating their story man well exactly you helped a reporter calling in the story you would type a story for him but you would also help him write it on the phone and that we had an dictation bankers it was called the people like Lance Morrow the great SS for Time Mark and Jackie banned for two went on to become the architecture critic for The Washington Post an art critic for The Washington Post the great great group of people of went to New York Times eventually and we became like family now most of these guys were were five years older than I but we did everything together and my five years is that the star are the most wondrous things that I can't imagine we told you we lit lead parallel lives I mean I started the Chicago Tribune was twenty one years old my dad died a couple years earlier and I literally was raised in that newsroom raised by my colleagues that's what I write in the beginning of this book I was raised by these wonderful people who even today I get a lump in the tummy when I when I think about them and also the camaraderie of these people which was very different than Washington Post when I got to the post as I say the posts was a very foreign experience to me after after the star and these people socialize together yeah after the paper the Sunday paper and put together on Saturday night we went every Saturday we would go to somebody's house that they are alive patients and their allies there was a tremendous of drinking involved including Bye Bye this youngster and every afternoon a group of in shifts people would go to a bar restaurant called arrogance in Southwest Washington and most of them would order these big bird bath martinis for lunch of which they would have to and indeed I started to drink birdbath martinis at the age of sixteen or seventeen I just have to interrupt and I don't want to offend your left wing roots but we have to take a break for word from spots it's good racket mortgage by Quicken loans proudly supports the X Files when it comes to the big decision of choosing a mortgage lender it's important to work with someone you can trust who has your best interests in mind with rockin' mortgage you'll get a transparent online process that gives you the confidence you need to make an informed decision to give the bank of the waiting and go completely online at Quicken loans dot com slash X Files equal Housing lender license in all fifty states and MLS consumer access dot org Number thirty thirty you went to Elizabeth New Jersey you killed it they're very very well and you found her way back to the Washington Post have that happen well one at a star even though they insisted I had to finish college let me cover all kinds of things including the civil rights struggles of knowledge can give you the education exactly exactly and nor was I hope nor with the resort nor was I going to make it through at any college in and the city's favorite editor at The Star said look come to visit with New Jersey with me to let you do anything you want to write a column you can cover up whatever you want and I was there for one I was lucky enough to win a whole lot of prices for writing and news on deadline feature writing whole bunch of things and at that point I applied to go to the Washington Post The New York Times San Francisco Chronicle and The Post hired me partly on the strength of what they knew for my work at starhub but I was the only person hired at the Washington posts without a college degree in a good number and and would be the last person hired to pose without a college degree let's jump forward to the story that everyone remembers you four of the Watergate story talk about how that began I was at that point I had covered many many things on the local side of the paper I'd gone era in nineteen sixty six of the break in was on June seventeen nineteen seventy two so I had six years at the post covered courts I've covered the counties of suburban counties I was rock critic of the paper goes to part time rock critic of paper and at the time break in I was the chief Virginia correspondent one of two actually FOR THE WASHINGTON post so I lived in Richmond the capital of Virginia during legislative session covered the Legislature and on that day I was writing a profile of a truly great politician running for governor of Virginia named Henry how a real progressive who had been the lieutenant governor of Virginia almost became the governor and I was writing this profile of him in the in the office and there was a lot of activity around the city desk a lot of commotion and up to see what it was about and it was about this break in occurred Democratic National headquarters and the movie You All The President's Men is quite accurate when it shows me trying to ease story I would do some hella lot more interesting than how so I said the look I I can make some checks and I was known as somebody who could was very good at getting information on the telephone people and good police contacts and I just wanna make some calls and I got on the phone I got to some people in Florida who were the wives of the Watergate burglars I got to some people to Watergate and so I participated Bob Woodward a dead than he was new to the paper he had been sent down to the courthouse a few blocks from where we're recording this too o Watch The arraignment of the suspects of the burglars who had been arrested wearing rubber gloves and wearing and in business suits in with hundred dollar bills on in their possession and I was slightly suspicious yet slightly suspicious and so the two of us work on a thrown together in that first story that carried the byline of our police reporter Al for us another story in itself because there were three police reporters and you'll get a kick out of this at the time in Washington who I had known from back in my star days from the Washington Post The Washington Star and Washington Daily News and by that time between them they than a hundred years at the cop shop as we called it an Al Lewis was a great police reporter in the first Watergate story carries his byline and there's a list of a bunch of others myself and Woodward included who participated in it I used to take dictation from a hat when I worked on nights of the Tribune from uno police reporter named Henry Wood and he would call in with stories about them at some terribly violent you know people decapitated shot burned and it finishes notes and Hedo is in the same ways if Al plays suspect that for every newspaper has guys like this guys like that but did you know at that moment that you are into something big it was obvious that this was a hell of a story but what it was with was very unclear and the next day it was determined that Woodward and I would would come into the paper the next day was Sunday and so we were in there by ourselves and we started making calls around and very quickly it was determined that one of the burglars was also a security consultant for the Committee for the reelection of President United States and so there were a lot of holy shit moments the first when you see in the THE president's men when Woodward says just that at the courthouse when this same security consulting also says he worked for the C I A so right away it was apparent that something momentous had happened here and partly by talking to to the wives of some of these burglars in establishing their connections with the C I A I had first thought that this thing what was going to head toward the C I A not toward Nixon's reelection committee or the president of the United States and that Matt was where it seemed to be going in the early absurd know the absurd thing about the whole deal was that Nixon was headed to a resoundingly that that November to be me not have any other two even justifiable if you are in a close race but it spoke to a level of paranoia and wasn't absurd because and nor is the mythology of the coverup worse than the crime true in Watergate Richard Nixon was a criminal president from the day that he became president the United States as we now know partly from the Villa in the last few weeks it's been established imagine this after all these years now been established through Nixon's notes that he tried to undermine the Paris peace talks that were taking place under Lyndon Johnson so that he could win the election rather be peace in Viet Nam and and the result is that probably twenty five thousand American kids lost their lives not to mention hundreds or thousands of Indo Chinese people it's a it's a huge event in our history but right away when Nixon became president he also set up an internal apparatus for illegal wiretapping burglaries all kinds of things Nixon was a criminal president unlike any in our history from the first days of his presidency until he left and from his tapes we that with all the evidence that goes with it you can listen to Richard Nixon a year before the Watergate break in one year to the day he wants to get some papers out of the Brookings Institution a think tank here in Washington that he thinks will make his predecessor Lyndon Johnson looked terrible compared to himself Richard Nixon and his conduct the war in Viet Nam and Nixon says fire bomb the goddamn place break into Brookings I don't care what you have to do to get those documents get those goddamn documents and for the next thirteen days Richard Nixon tried to go back and have that fire bombing or burglary committed in Brookings until finally some of his aides prevailed on him not to do it so so good to go to your point about the notion of they didn't need to do this break in into Watergate Watergate was in large part about undermining the whole system of free elections in this country and it interesting that we now have while you and I are talking we're talking about the Specter of the Russians are undermining our free elections in this country that there had been as Woodward and I discovered a massive campaign of political espionage and sabotage engineered by the White House by Richard Nixon and those under him to interfere in the Democratic Party's primary process through wiretapping through dirty tricks in which the objective was to get George McGovern to be the nominee of the Democratic Party because he was the weakest of candidates and the strongest candidate who Nixon did not want to run against was Edmund muskie the senator from Maine and the muskie campaign was sabotaged and you can now see
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Ep. 118 - Carl Bernstein

The Axe Files with David Axelrod