Fear not, aspiring journalists with lousy academic records. You, too, could be in danger of not graduating from high school yet still go on to help bring down a president and become one of the best-known reporters in American history. That bit of encouragement, along with a supersize helping of nostalgia for a bygone newspaper era of Linotype, phone booths and carbon paper, is among the memorable features of "Chasing History," Carl Bernstein's memoir about his path from copy boy to Nixonian scourge.
The history in this entertaining if occasionally dry memoir is the American history of the first half of the 1960s, starting when Bernstein began as a copy boy at his hometown Washington Star.
Readers won't find anything here about the Watergate scandal that made Bernstein's reputation. This is instead the story of a young man who moved from Washington to Silver Spring, Md., when he was 13 and began his career, sort of, when he delivered copies of the Evening Star out of a red wagon.
At 16, he became a copy boy at the same paper, at least in part because his father feared that Bernstein wouldn't amount to much thanks to "the pool hall, my school report cards, and the Montgomery County Juvenile Court."
What follows is a tale that mixes personal history with details of the most significant events of that half-decade, as seen from the perspective of a young man who loved the "glorious chaos of typewriters" and the debris on reporters' "institutional gunmetal" desks, from dictionaries to parimutuel betting slips.
Interspersed with reminiscences about his family and friends and his indifference to formal education — the University of Maryland briefly suspended him "for getting too many parking tickets on campus" — are stories of Bernstein's progression from copy boy to a dictationist with exemplary typing skills, the reporters he worked with, and the biggest issues of that era: the struggle for desegregation, John F. Kennedy's election to the presidency, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Bay of Pigs invasion, and more.
Bernstein occasionally dwells on insignificant details, such as the type of burger he ate before he covered a citizens' association meeting. At its best, however, "Chasing History" offers a unique view on American history and one journalist's maturation. Late in Bernstein's stint at the Star, Pulitzer-winner Mary Lou Werner was so impressed with his stories that, in a memo to Star editor Sidney Epstein, she wrote that Bernstein "might have the makings of an investigative reporter someday."
That's the sort of confidence booster that'll help you forget the high school chemistry teacher who wanted to give you an F.
Michael Magras is a freelance book critic. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Times Literary Supplement, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Kirkus Reviews and BookPage.
Chasing History: A Kid in the Newsroom
By: Carl Bernstein.
Publisher: Henry Holt, 384 pages, $29.99.