Carl Bernstein, Back on the Beat
Wednesday, June 20, 2007
Carl Bernstein would like to talk about his book, a meaty, 640-page slab that is parked on a table where he is eating lunch one recent afternoon. Everything about "A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton," says Serious Commitment, a phrase that has not been associated with the voracious and easily distracted half of the Watergate duo for a long time. But seven years after he started, here it is, a bona fide varsity-level hardback.
Even Bernstein sounds slightly amazed.
"I worked 18-hour days in the last year," he says over a cheeseburger at an Upper East Side restaurant. "I was surprised I could work like that at my age."
You can hear relief in his voice, and who could blame him? Like it or not, Bernstein is forever measured against the canny, tireless reporting and writing he did at the age of 28, after a break-in that ultimately ended a presidency. And he is forever measured against Bob Woodward, his onetime byline buddy and a modern publishing phenomenon. Stolid and utterly focused, Woodward has written more than a dozen books -- six since Bernstein signed the Clinton deal in 1999, all of them bestsellers.
Is it fair to compare? No, it's not. But the Bernstein of today has little choice but to contend with the Bernstein of yore, if only because the accomplishments of the latter are the reason we remain interested in him today. In the first few years after Watergate, Bernstein frittered away millions in a frenzy, on travel, home renovations, clothing and God knows what else, until he nearly went broke. His drinking became a problem. Nora Ephron portrayed him as the ultimate rake in "Heartburn," a not-very-fictional account of the dissolution of their marriage.
In the '80s, he showed up with some regularity in New York tabloids, the celebrated reporter turned night-life fixture, squiring the likes of Bianca Jagger and Elizabeth Taylor. The period he spent studying Hillary Clinton may well be a personal record in the category of "Longest Time With the Same Woman."
"I might have made seven years once before," he says, looking down at his plate, "but I'm not going to go into it."
It's not as if Bernstein disappeared. There was a family memoir, "Loyalties," in 1989, and a decently received biography of Pope John Paul II in 1996, "His Holiness," which he wrote with an Italian journalist, as well as authoritative magazine pieces.
But when he wasn't writing, Bernstein often seemed at the mercy of his appetites. There is nothing like an all-you-can-eat buffet to bring out the glutton in a man, and acclaim brought with it an aromatic heap of temptations. Anyone who has struggled with the concept of "enough" will understand; Bernstein seemed at moments like an object lesson in the mishandling of fame.
In a way, "A Woman in Charge" feels like his attempt to shape the narrative of his own life as much Hillary Clinton's; its very existence offers an alternative ending to the tale of his erratic post-Watergate career. Maybe one book, which has earned reviews ranging from dismissive (the New York Times) to deeply admiring (The Washington Post), can't offset the years when the bon vivant owned the low part of the seesaw and kept the serious writer stranded in midair.
Maybe it can. Over lunch, Bernstein can sound defensive when asked questions like "What have you been up to, all these years?," but he can sound positively serene, too. There were fallow years -- he'll acknowledge that -- but when he wasn't writing, he relished life and never more so, he says, than now, in the fourth year of a very happy marriage. In a series of follow-up phone interviews he will come across as irascible as ever, but here at J. G. Melon's, waving to diners who recognize him, he swears he has mellowed. Meeting high expectations, his and others', doesn't vex him the way it once did.