I was captivated by Carl Bernstein’s new memoir Chasing History: A Kid in the Newsroom from the very first pages. It opens in 1960 with the teenage Bernstein in downtown Washington DC, forty dollars in his pocket, headed to the Woodward and Lothrop department store—Woodies, to the locals– to buy a suit for a newspaper job interview. Bernstein describes it all so evocatively, mentioning the Hotel Harrington, Ford Theater and other neighborhood landmarks, the panhandlers and seedy shops, describing how the area emptied out at night once the government employees went home.

It was just a dozen years later, in the early 1970s, that I would haunt that neighborhood myself in my late teens: DC was my getaway spot when I wanted to escape the boring Philadelphia suburb home life of my parents. I’d hop on a Greyhound bus to the old terminal at 10th Street and New York Avenue, walk the couple blocks to the fading, inexpensive Hotel Harrington and check in. There, I would enjoy the monuments and politics of official Washington by day (and drop into Woodies), and the thrill of the vaguely seedy urban neighborhood in the evening. Once I even took in a show at the Ford Theater a block away.

It was that same dozen years later that Bernstein was gaining fame as part of the Woodward and Bernstein duo of Washington Post reporters who broke open the Watergate scandal that brought down Richard Nixon. He was 28 at the time. But back in 1960, it was touch and go as to what his future would hold:

My becoming a copyboy was really my father’s doing. 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 report cards, and the Montgomery County Juvenile Court. It was the opinion of experts at all three institutions that the odds were against my ever mounting to much.

Bernstein’s father got him an interview at the Washington DC Evening Star newspaper.  Although the elder Bernstein was a firebrand union organizer with the United Federal Workers/United Public Workers of America, and in the early 1950s had taken his son to sit-ins at Woodies to protest segregation in its Tea Room restaurant, he had ties to the more conservative Star rather than to the more liberal Washington Post. The former had given the union more favorable coverage, while the Post’s reporting tainted it with allegations of Communist ties.

The interview was disappointing, as Bernstein was viewed as too young, but as he was escorted out of the building, he was led through the newsroom:

The door through which Rudy Kauffmann now led me opened into another universe: People were shouting. Typewriters clattered and chinged. Beneath my feet, I could feel the rumble of the presses.

In my whole life I had never heard such glorious chaos or seen such purposeful commotion as I beheld in that newsroom. By the time I had walked from one end to the other, I knew that I wanted to be a newspaperman.

He kept pestering until, at age 16, he was hired as a copy boy, and before long was given reporting assignments. His first was the neighborhood Petworth Citizen’s Association meeting in Northwest Washington DC. Petworth was a previously white neighborhood that was now 60% Black, so Bernstein was surprised to see all white faces at the meeting.

The president’s name was Annabelle Gustavson Weaver, and she would be happy to help with anything I needed to report my story. So I took a deep breath and asked: “Could you tell me, ma’am, why none of the Black residents of this neighborhood are here?”

She was not the least put off by my ignorance and, in the most gracious way, educated me on the spot about community meetings in the District of Columbia. Citizens associations, she explained, were neighborhood organizations whose membership was all white. Civic associations—including the Petworth Civic Association—were all Black. I was covering the monthly meeting of the Petworth Citizens Association. The separate citywide umbrella organizations for the two communities were the Federation of (white) Citizens Associations and the Federation of (Black) Civic Associations

The reality of Washington DC up into the early 1960s as very much a Jim Crow city comes up repeatedly throughout the book. His parents protested segregation in restaurants. The Sholl’s restaurant chain was one of the few that early on would serve Blacks. On Route 40, from DC to the Delaware line, African diplomats were routinely denied service on their way to the United Nations. When he was in grammar school, the City Recreation Board drained the public pools rather than allow Black families to swim in them. In 1961, the Glen Echo Amusement Park in Maryland opened to Black people, provoking protests from white supremacists and neo-Nazis. When Kennedy became president in 1961, the White House News Photographers Association still didn’t allow Black members. The Diamond Cab Association employed only white drivers, while the Capitol Cab Company had only Black drivers.

On matters of race, the Washington Post was considered editorially more in line with the Black population of the city, which included a sizeable middle class and even an elite upper class, along with great swaths of poverty. The Post had Black reporters, while the Washington Star had none. Nevertheless, the Star managed some wins in covering civil rights issues. One of its handful of women reporters, Mary Lou Werner, had won a Pulitzer for her reporting in the late 1950s on Virginia’s infamous reaction to desegregation, where the government shuttered public schools and set up private whites-only schools instead. In 1961, they printed a 14-part series called “The Negro in Washington”, in which reporter Haynes Johnson “had spent months interviewing hundreds of Black citizens about every aspect of their lives in the capital…. Their quotes, and his ability to convey (among other things) the deep anger and sadness at the difficulties they and their community experienced every day, were wrenching but not overwrought. His reporting was full of context; it did not pull back from complexity.” (Fun note: Haynes Johnson’s father was Malcolm Johnson, whose 1949 reporting for the New York Sun on corruption in New York City’s docks was the basis for the film On the Waterfront.)

In these early days, as the paper gave him more complex assignments, Bernstein interacted with many of the great events of the era. For Kenndy’s inauguration, he roamed the parade route with pockets of nickels and dimes for payphones, gathering details to pass along to the primary reporters on the event.

 “Mostly I kept my concentration on the street scene until, from loudspeakers off to the east, in the direction of the Capitol, I heard Marian Anderson sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” My parents had attended the great concert at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 that Eleanor Roosevelt had organized when Miss Anderson had been forbidden by the Daughters of the American Revolution to sing at their headquarters at Constitution Hall because she was Black. Mrs. Roosevelt would be riding in Kennedy’s parade, although it was said she did not like him much—because he had abstained in the vote to censure Joe McCarthy—and she had preferred Adlai Stevenson for president.

(I’m working from the advance readers copy of the book, so perhaps this was corrected in the final edit, but Kennedy had not abstained. He was absent, hospitalized on that day. Eleanor Roosevelt’s disdain for Kennedy came more from her conversations with him, in which he seemed ambivalent on the issue of Joe McCarthy.)

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, his parents got strange telephone calls: a male voice would ask if Mr. and Mrs. Bernstein were there, and then hang up. Through the reporting grapevine, Bernstein learned that the FBI was confirming the location of known and suspected leftists. FBI head J. Edgar Hoover was hoping to convince Kennedy to round them up and place them in preemptive detention under the McCarran Internal Security Act of 1950. (That detention clause had been introduced, to my surprise, by Hubert Humphrey despite his general liberal reputation.) Fortunately, Kennedy refused.

And in Bernstein’s first Supreme Court reporting assignment, he covered a case about the reading of the bible in public schools, brought by atheist housewife Madalyn Murray (better remembered today as Madalyn Murray O’Hair.) Though Bernstein considered himself generally in agreement with her regarding the separation of church and state, he was unimpressed with Murray:

“I never did meet Madalyn Murray, though I talked to her on the phone that week, and several times thereafter when follow-ups seemed in order. The experience taught me that even idealists are sometimes lousy people. When I first talked to her over the telephone, she cursed about Catholics, called them mackerel snappers, and made jokes about Justice Frankfurter’s frankfurter and the like. She also proclaimed that “all Christians are animals”—and that they had been throughout history.”

In all, Chasing History is a charming book, full of nostalgia about the newspaper business that era, and with lots of interesting details about the great events of that time. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

This Week’s New Hardcover Releases

  • Aftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich, 1945-1955, by Harald Jähner. This look at the lives of Germans after World War Two by a culture journalist was on the bestseller list there for nearly a year when it was published in 2019. Now translated to English.
  • Emotional: How Feelings Shape Our Thinking, by Leonard Mlodinow. Latest research from psychology and neuroscience on the how ‘feelings’ are the engine behind that rational thought so valued in age-old beliefs.
  • How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them, by Barbara F. Walter. A leading political scientist examines the dramatic rise in violent extremism around the globe and sounds the alarm on the increasing likelihood of a second civil war in the United States.
  • Righteous Troublemakers: Untold Stories of the Social Justice Movement in America, by Rev. Al Sharpton. While the world may know the major names of the Civil Rights movement, there are countless lesser-known heroes fighting the good fight to advance equal justice for all, heeding the call when no one else was listening, often risking their lives and livelihoods in the process.
  • The Rise: Kobe Bryant and the Pursuit of Immortality, by Mike Sielski. The inside look at one of the most captivating and consequential figures in our culture beginning with his Philly childhood. With never-before-heard interviews.
  • This Boy We Made: A Memoir of Motherhood, Genetics, and Facing the Unknown, by Taylor Harris. A Black mother bumps up against the limits of everything she thought she believed—about science and medicine, about motherhood, and about her faith—in search of the truth about her son.
  • Tractor Wars: John Deere, Henry Ford, International Harvester, and the Birth of Modern Agriculture, by Neil Dahlstrom. The untold story of the “tractor wars,” the twenty-year period that introduced power farming—the most fundamental change in world agriculture in hundreds of years.
  • Lightning Striking: Ten Transformative Moments in Rock and Roll, by Lenny Kaye. Memphis, 1954. New Orleans 1957. Philadelphia 1959. Liverpool, 1962. San Francisco 1967. Detroit 1969. New York, 1975. London 1977. Los Angeles 1984 / Norway 1993. Seattle 1991. Guess the moment described…or buy the book.
  • Lost & Found: A Memoir, by Kathryn Schulz. Getting lots of buzz. Eighteen months before Kathryn Schulz’s beloved father died, she met the woman she would marry. In Lost & Found, she weaves the stories of those relationships into a brilliant exploration of how all our lives are shaped by loss and discovery—from the maddening disappearance of everyday objects to the sweeping devastations of war, pandemic, and natural disaster; from finding new planets to falling in love.

All book links in this diary are to my online bookstore The Literate Lizard. If you already have a favorite indie bookstore, please keep supporting them. If you’re able to throw a little business my way, that would be appreciated. Use the coupon code DAILYKOS for 15% off your order, in gratitude for your support (an ever-changing smattering of new releases are already discounted 15% each week). We also partner with Hummingbird Media for ebooks and Libro.fm for audiobooks. The ebook app is admittedly not as robust as some, but it gets the job done. Libro.fm is similar to Amazon’s Audible, with a la carte audiobooks, or a $14.99 monthly membership which includes the audiobook of your choice and 20% off subsequent purchases during the month.

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