Carl Bernstein: An Improbable Beginning

You are a newsroom manager at the Washington Post, interviewing a man barely in his 20s who yearns to write news stories for your paper.

The nervous youth fidgets as you review his background.

College dropout, not just once, but several times. Started in the business as a paper boy when he was 12. Copy boy (thanks to his father getting him an interview) at your rival paper, the Washington Evening Star. Dictation staffer at the Star. Brief stint as a reporter at the Star, later demoted because he had no college degree.

You also know that the kid, as a prank, invented an obituary so convincing that the Post published it as the lead obit for the day.

What you don’t know is the young man who you now look in the eye will blaze a path in journalism that will make him one of America’s greatest newspaper journalists of the 20th century. He will team with Bob Woodward at the Post to write a series of stories exposing a White House scandal leading to President Richard Nixon’s resignation. Bernstein and Woodward will write two of the most compelling political books of the 20th Century, All the President’s Men and The Final Days.

In Chasing History: A Kid in the Newsroom, Carl Bernstein recreates his youthful years at the Star in a book that will appeal to journalists and just about everyone interested in a compelling life adventure story through the 1960s and early 1970s. Balancing high school and college classes with full-time newspaper work, Bernstein began as a copy boy, snapping to attention each time an editor yelled, “Copy!” His job included a long list of mostly low-status tasks critical to publishing a newspaper. His next position was at the phone bank, taking dictation from reporters in the field decades before wireless technology.

Bernstein was an opportunist and editors soon sent him into the field to observe events and type summaries for reporters to add to their stories. He witnessed the Kennedy inaugural parade, presidential press conferences, civil rights demonstrations and much more, with a keen eye and ear to anecdotes that enriched the Post’s reports. He was bitten by the bug that causes some newspaper reporters and editors to say they “bleed black.” The kid just didn’t see the point of college classes.

Like Bernstein, I was a paper boy and later had a short stint as a copy boy at a medium-sized Southern California newspaper (the Oxnard Press-Courier). I worked my way into the sports department at 15, taking dictation from coaches about their teams’ games. Like Bernstein, my typing class paid dividends and my typing speed impressed my bosses. Within months, my byline appeared above stories about local high school sports. I soon added my own biweekly sports column to my job that morphed into full-time position during my senior year in high school.

Unlike Bernstein, I did not live next door to a U.S. senator and my parents were not civil rights activists. And even a deep love of newspaper work could not derail me from my goal to be the first college graduate in my family history. But I continued to bleed black, staying in journalism during much of my college and 31-year teaching career.

Like Bernstein, I authored books, two distance trekking adventure stories. Unlike Bernstein, my work met modest success, falling short of his mark by thousands (millions?) of copies. Like Bernstein, my first newspaper would not survive the decline of the world of black ink and newsprint.

Chasing History leaves off when Bernstein begins his career at the Washington Post. I was sad to see it end even though I knew the rest of his story. Or maybe it was just hard to see him go, leaving a youthful life that captivated me and closely paralleled many moments of my own beginnings in newspapers.

Perhaps my melancholy was rooted in the knowledge that the jobs that gave Bernstein and me our beginnings in newspapers no longer exist in the digital world. I remain hopeful, though, that kids like Carl Bernstein are out there, itching to strengthen democracy through their work in black ink.

PCT Trekker Brings Home the People

I’ll admit that I am addicted to distance-trekking books, not because I have written a couple of them, but because good ones make me feel like I am back on the trail.

Rick Rogers’ Walking Home brought the Pacific Crest Trail to life like no other account I have read. It is more about the people than the 2,650-mile trail from Mexico to Canada. Rogers’ insights and descriptions about his fellow thru-hikers and himself are entertaining, insightful, and chuckle-worthy.

In his mid-60s, he begins his journey with a pen pal whom he had not met and ends in his home state of Washington with his son, a third-grader. Along the way he meets a plethora of personalities that keep the book moving along at a mostly fast pace. He avoids some people and eagerly walks with others, cleverly and bluntly giving the reasons for his choices.

A former climbing instructor, his gear choices are questionable, even poor. He finds his only pair of shorts at WalMart and he knows they are made for women, but buys them anyway, leading to some funny situations that made me laugh. Maybe I even laughed at him because he should have known better.

Along the way, Rogers sprinkles instructive words of wisdom about backpacking, walking, and choices in people. Traveling in 2018, he encounters so much snow in California’s Sierra Nevada that he has to skip north and reverse direction—a flip—to avoid disaster. He then drives a rental car to Oregon to pick up where he left off.

There were times I would have liked more observations about the PCT, but in the end, Rick Rogers made me feel like those who walked with him were better for knowing him, but they may not have realized it until they returned home.