By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
"All I care is that it's done, it's out there," he says, waving his arms at his book as if it were a kid he's shooing off to college. "It'll have its place in the world, people will love it, people will hate it. They'll buy it, they won't buy it. I'd love to see it sell a million copies, but I'm a little different than I was 25 years ago. I have a different approach to life. Same basic beliefs, same nervous energy. But I know there are things that I can't control."'A Risk-Taker'
Dressed in a dark sport jacket and a white Oxford shirt, Carl Bernstein looks like an aging Italian tycoon. He is 63, white-haired and plump. Despite the years, there remains something boyish and irrepressible in his eyes, which light up like a 15-year-old's after he's swiped the keys to the Chrysler. Which is to say, in one way, he hasn't changed.
"Before he turned 16 he used to take his family's glorious pink DeSoto Firedome and we'd go racing up 16th Street at 100 miles per hour," recalls Ben Stein, the actor and writer who grew up next door to the Bernsteins in Silver Spring. "No seatbelt, no license. He was daring, reckless, imaginative, a risk-taker, a buccaneer, a pool player, a great dancer. Looking back, it's amazing to me how much my early life was formed by Carl."
Bernstein lives in a modest two-bedroom apartment with corner windows and a terrific view of the Upper East Side. There are a couple of oil paintings of Venice on the wall, copies of his books on the shelves and a rough draft of his first newspaper story, written when he was 16, for the Washington Star.
"It was all downhill from there," he says.
He lives here with his third wife, Christine Kuehbeck, an executive assistant at a nonprofit called the International Longevity Center, whom he married in 2003 in Iceland, of all places. ("Always wanted to go," he explains.) The two kids he had with Ephron are grown. Jacob is a writer at Women's Wear Daily, and Max is the lead singer and guitarist of a pop-punk band called the Actual.
"Metal-influenced and punk-influenced," shouts Bernstein, proudly describing the Actuals' music, which is playing on the very expensive stereo system in his office. "With great pop hooks."
Bernstein is expansive, feisty, winningly sarcastic and testy about lines of inquiry he doesn't like. Extracting answers from him feels at times like trying to jack a necklace from the home of a master thief. Ask enough questions about his past and he goes off the record and blusters at uninterruptable length.
"This is ancient history," he says for the record, "which I have little interest in these days, except insofar as it's part of who I am, the good and the bad."
Let's talk about the book, he suggests. That's the news.
Bernstein on this day is in the midst of a publicity push for "A Woman in Charge," and measured simply by TV face time, it's going spectacularly well. He's yakking on every show where an author could hope to yak, easily out-appearing New York Times reporters Don Van Natta Jr. and Jeff Gerth, who rushed their Hillary biography, "Her Way," into bookstores on the same publishing date.
Neither of these biographies seems to have done much to ding Clinton's reputation, though Bernstein clearly wasn't hoping for blood. His book is about as Hillary-neutral as a Hillary book can be. He did dig up what he considers a couple of doozies in the course of 200 interviews, most notably that Bill Clinton fell in love with another woman and wanted to end his marriage, but Hillary wouldn't let him go. A spokesman for the New York senator sounded less than scintillated.
"At first blush, the book made me yawn," says Philippe Reines, reprising a comment made by the Clinton camp when the book was released. "But after reading every word, I was wrong because I really should have asked: Can I be quoted snoring?"
The old deflection-with-humor trick.
"Any time anybody writes anything of any length about Hillary Clinton that her team didn't have a hand in forming," Bernstein says, "they try to attack it, or eclipse it or make it go away. It's sad because they ought to do better than that."
"A Woman in Charge" was conceived well before talk about another Clinton in the White House. Knopf reportedly paid $750,000 for the rights and the original publication date was set for 2003. As recently as February last year, though, Bernstein said on "Larry King Live" that his book was half-finished. Eventually, he wrote 200,000 words in 12 months.
The delay in delivering the final draft can be explained, Bernstein says, by his gift for procrastinating and his fondness for listening to music and traveling. There was also the occasional magazine piece.
"I was living a full, wonderful life," he explains.
The full, wonderful life isn't cheap, however, and Bernstein has told friends that he long ago burned through the roughly $3 million he earned from Watergate-related books and movies. He was somewhat notorious for borrowing money from friends and not paying them back, a habit he developed as a kid. Occasionally, those who know him say, his spending has landed him in serious financial straits.
Those straits appear to be behind the announcement in 2003 that the papers of Woodward and Bernstein would be sold to the University of Texas for $5 million. Woodward had planned to donate his notes and rough drafts, gratis, to Yale, and shipping the lot to Austin for a gargantuan sum was not his style. In the days before Deep Throat was revealed, Woodward worried, too, about exposing him and every other source who had helped the pair break the Watergate story.
"I wasn't sure it was a good idea," says Woodward, an assistant managing editor at The Post, on the phone. "So I asked [attorney and agent] Bob Barnett and he said, 'Don't do it.' "
But as Ben Bradlee, The Post's former executive editor, later put it in a speech the same year, "I think Carl needed the money." Woodward, switching to the passive voice, says, "I was convinced," and in the end he asked Barnett to draft a contract with elaborate protections to Watergate sources. He donated his cut to a foundation he had created with his wife.
Bernstein says it's unfair to characterize the papers transaction as a favor by one friend coming to the financial rescue of another, and he says he wasn't broke at the time of the sale. "What are you trying to say, that Woodward is richer than I am?" he snaps. "Everyone knows that."
The relationship between the two is complicated and has inspired plenty of speculation. "Way down, they hated each other," guessed Alan Pakula, the director of "All the President's Men," who spent hours interviewing both men to prepare for filming.
But that was a long time ago. The two didn't speak for a brief period in the late 1970s, when Bernstein, by his own admission, underperformed during the reporting of "The Final Days," the duo's second Watergate book. That prompted Woodward to swear off future collaborations, but the two say they have a close if contentious friendship. When Bernstein landed in a bramble, Woodward usually got the first call.
"He's never turned his back on Carl," says Jim Wooten, an ABC correspondent who worked with Bernstein at the network in the early '80s, "and he was always aware of Carl's faults and his tendency for self-indulgence."
There are friends who believe that for as long as Bernstein is coupled in the public imagination with Woodward -- which is to say, forever -- Woodward will have a vested interest in helping to dust him off whenever he needs dusting. Other theories are more elaborate.
"I think Woodward feels a kind of survivor's guilt," says Alicia Shepard, author of "Woodward and Bernstein: Life in the Shadow of Watergate." "You have to remember that Carl had been a street reporter for years when the two started working together, and one of the things Woodward has always made clear is that he learned a lot from Carl. In a way, he was able to capitalize on Carl's talents more than Carl was."Money, Fame, Parties
Bernstein started at The Post at age 22, and six years later, right before Watergate broke, his future with the newspaper looked shaky. He was smart and charismatic but willful and allergic to authority. He could write terrific and nuanced stories when engaged by the subject. When he wasn't, forget it. He was in the office on Saturday, June 17, 1972, as a kind of remedial punishment for a piece he couldn't seem to finish.
As tricky as he was to manage, he seemed like the right guy for a story that would involve local courts and cops. Bernstein had spent years exploring the District and knew its folkways and characters as well as any reporter on the staff. His father had been a government lawyer who was ground up by the communist inquisitions of the 1950s and who, lacking better options, opened a coin-operated laundry on Georgia Avenue. Bernstein attended the University of Maryland for two desultory years ("Sometimes I flunked, sometimes I quit," he says), but newspapers were his passion. His knowledge base of the area would prove invaluable to the Watergate investigation. As would his nerve, charm and stellar instincts about where the story was headed.
"He taught me, to the extent I learned," Woodward says. "If you look at 'All the President's Men,' the techniques in that book -- getting the list of people, knocking on doors, going back -- Carl was the energy source."
The hard part, as it happened, came after Nixon resigned, when "Woodstein," as they were dubbed, got the ticker-tape treatment and money gushed in -- money for two bestsellers, money for movie rights, money for speeches. Also fame and parties. A lot of parties.
It would put the zap on just about any head. One year, Bernstein is a reporter, earning less than $20,000 a year, and 24 months later, Dustin Hoffman is camped out in the newsroom, studying the guy's mannerisms for "All the President's Men."
"It's something I handled very badly in some ways," Bernstein says. "I hope not as badly as some have said."
Arguably, the most reckless of several reckless acts was cheating on Ephron, whom he'd married in 1976, and who discovered her husband's affair with the wife of the ambassador to England while pregnant with the couple's second child. By the time "Heartburn" was published, in 1983, Bernstein had left the newspaper and was working as a correspondent at ABC News. After his arrest for DUI that same year -- it was Woodward who retrieved him from police custody -- Bernstein checked himself into a hospital, citing migraines and depression. Charges were later dropped.
It's a measure of how far Bernstein had fallen that the brief in this newspaper about his arrest ran with this headline: "ABC News Correspondent Is Charged in Traffic Case." There was no mention that he'd ever worked at The Post.Carl Being Carl
Bernstein would become a New York scenester of a certain age, turning up in a Spy magazine feature called "Nightlife Iron Man Decathlon." He tried his hand at a couple of different jobs, but none of them lasted very long, except the job of being Carl Bernstein.
"That was a full-time profession for a while," says John Stacks, his former editor at Time, where Bernstein briefly worked in the '90s. "Carl was very busy being Carl."
More recently, he has returned to the job he seems to relish the most: best-selling author. "A Woman in Charge" will debut at No. 7 on the New York Times hardback list the week of June 24. Touring the country, Bernstein is once again a teller of stories, a seeker of facts, a guy in the middle of it all, trading jabs with powerful people. Explaining Hillary Clinton's inner life and true motivations, he says over lunch, was a lot like solving the puzzle of Watergate.
Let's talk about the book, he says, though even the book leads, if only briefly, back to Watergate. For Bernstein, the endless fascination with the work that made his name is like a medal that he can't remove from his shirt -- an honor that he'll never escape. You get the feeling that if Shakespeare were around today, this is a character he would want to dream up: the proud, volatile man whose finest hour often seemed like his undoing. Surround our protagonist with enticements he can't resist and tether him to a friend-slash-rival who plows relentlessly forward as our leading man falters, and let the drama unfold.
The play would star a thoroughly mortal hero you can't help but root for with flaws that anyone can understand. The final act, of course, is under construction.
"You get to a certain point in your life and you say, 'Wow,' " says Bernstein. "I did some terrific stuff, took some hard knocks. But basically, the cliches are true. You're on a journey. All the cliches are true."