In 1955, Carl Bernstein turned 11 on Valentine’s Day and received a Brownie box camera as a gift from his parents. It came in handy for what Bernstein says was “the worst day” of his life up to that point: The Bernsteins were leaving their home in Northwest Washington, D.C., and moving north to Silver Spring.
Halfway through sixth grade, Bernstein was being uprooted from his friends, some of whom went to Janney Elementary School with him and others who attended a local Catholic school. Bernstein, now 78, recalls taking his new camera to school on his last day of classes to take photos of the neighborhood buddies with whom he would “play ball after school, go to dinner at each other’s houses and just hang out.”
Young Carl, who would later gain fame along with fellow Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward for their coverage of Watergate, was not happy about trading city living for suburban Silver Spring, but his parents were ready for a larger house. “My mom, especially, wanted to build a house. She had a wonderful aesthetic sense. [The new house] was all glass and redwood in the back that opened onto Sligo Creek Park.” The Bernsteins’ new home was on Harvey Road, where “90% of the families were Jewish,” he says.
Among the neighbors were the Steins, who lived next door and whose son, Ben, was Carl’s first close friend on the block. They teamed up on a Sunday morning delivery service: The New York Times as well as lox and bagels from a local deli, Bernstein recalls. Years later, Ben Stein worked on the White House staffs of Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford before heading to Hollywood, where he earned fame as a game show host and for his role as an economics teacher in the film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
It didn’t take long for Bernstein to realize social life in his new neighborhood revolved around bar and bat mitzvahs, the coming-of-age ritual in Judaism. And Bernstein says he wanted to have one, relentlessly lobbying his “irreligious” parents, as he called them. Identifying more with Jewish culture than the religion, Al and Sylvia Bernstein finally relented and agreed to let Bernstein be tutored in Hebrew so he could have a bar mitzvah. After the ceremony at the Montgomery County Jewish Center (now Ohr Kodesh Congregation) in Chevy Chase, friends and relatives gathered at a reception in the family’s living room.
Bernstein’s reception was marked by the uninvited guests who remained across the street: FBI agents who jotted down the license plate numbers of the family’s guests. Bernstein says he grew up with both of his parents under surveillance by the FBI and persecuted by the government for their beliefs. Thirty-three years ago, against his parents’ wishes, he wrote about those difficult times in Loyalties: A Son’s Memoir, confirming that his parents had been members of the Communist Party during part of the 1940s.
As Bernstein moved into his high school years, he was anything but a model student at Montgomery Blair High School nor a top vote-getter for “most likely to succeed.” Along with regularly playing hooky, he says, he became a bit too familiar with Montgomery County police officers and juvenile court judges after his share of arrests for everything from defacing public property to drag racing.
Bernstein says he found out on the day that seniors were measured for caps and gowns that he had flunked chemistry and would not graduate with the Class of 1961. After discussions among Principal Daryl Shaw, his chemistry teacher and his guidance counselor, Bernstein’s grade was changed to a “D” so he could graduate, Bernstein recalls, noting that he heard that the principal didn’t want him around for another year.
Although known as a troublemaker, Bernstein knew how to have fun. He recalls riding to the local Hot Shoppes with Goldie Hawn, a fellow Blair student. He frequented Friday night sock hops and became accomplished at the jitterbug. He was such a good dancer that he appeared multiple times on The Milt Grant Show, a teen dance TV program that aired locally from 1956 to 1961.
While in high school, Bernstein worked as a copyboy for the Washington Evening Star. After graduating from Blair, he attended the University of Maryland but did not graduate. He worked for the Elizabeth Daily Journal in New Jersey after leaving the Star and was hired by The Washington Post in 1966.
Six years later, Nixon was president and Bernstein, 28, happened to be in the Post newsroom on June 17, 1972, as word came in about a break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office building in the District. That was the day his life changed. Bernstein and Woodward were assigned to cover a story that would eventually lead to Nixon’s resignation and earn a Pulitzer Prize for the Post.
Fifty years later, Bernstein says he and Woodward are as close as ever. They speak a couple of times a week and continue to believe journalism is a constant search for “the best obtainable version of the truth,” Bernstein says.
Bernstein’s latest book, Chasing History: A Kid in the Newsroom, was released in January. We spoke with him from his home in New York via Zoom and again on the phone. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Where would a reporter begin to find ‘the best obtainable version of the truth’ about Carl Bernstein in 1950s Silver Spring?
For starters, they would need to know I had one foot in the pool hall, one foot in the juvenile court and one foot in the classroom, except that last foot was probably a couple of toes. I was hopeless. It was the height of the Cold War. And after the Russians launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957, Montgomery County [Public] Schools added more math and science. There was no way I was going to pass eighth grade algebra [at the former Montgomery Hills Junior High] and I had to go to summer school at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, where my algebra teacher turned out to be Sam Sacco, a popular rock ’n’ roll DJ from WINX radio.
What made the Cold War seem real?
In grammar school in Washington, we had air-raid drills and hid under our desks when the sirens went off. When our family moved to Silver Spring from Tenleytown, the oldest house in Montgomery County was close by. It not only featured the only private swimming pool I’d ever seen, but something else new to me—a bomb shelter that was most exotic. Inside, it had canned goods, shovels, sleeping bags and shortwave radios.
You’ve written about the harassment your parents suffered during the period known as the Red Scare. How concerned were they during the Cuban missile crisis?
They were frightened after getting calls from people who hung up, calls other friends of theirs also received. The sense was the calls were a pretext in preparation for a national emergency and a possible roundup of left-wing people to send to detention camps, something FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had wanted. Not sure I ever said this before, but when I got my parents’ FBI files for Loyalties, the 302s [the FBI form summarizing agent interviews], there were five boxes with check marks on the forms that went all the way up to Hoover. And the fifth box was checked by Mr. Felt [Mark Felt, the associate FBI director who revealed at age 91 that he was ‘Deep Throat,’ Woodward and Bernstein’s source during their Watergate coverage]. Great irony there.
What have you taken from your parents’ experience?
You call out what the truth is. The heroism of my parents can be seen in their role in the civil rights movement, working to desegregate downtown Washington, D.C.—the lunch counters and the restaurants. I grew up in Jim Crow Washington. The recreation department of D.C. drained the swimming pools so we couldn’t swim with Black kids. We had what were called wade-ins before they closed them down.
Glen Echo Amusement Park was segregated. The Hiser movie theater and the bowling alley beneath it in Bethesda—segregated. Gifford’s ice cream parlor in Silver Spring—segregated. In essence, even by 1963 this region was still segregated. The way African Americans were treated in this country bothered me. My parents had Black people in our house, who were friends.
You led a Jewish youth group, AZA, from Washington to North Carolina during the early 1960s. You wanted to show your members the scourge of racism. Did you open any eyes?
As president of our chapter, I wanted to get the B’nai B’rith youth involved in civil rights. But the adult leaders worried if Jewish kids were participating in sit-ins, it might cause trouble for Jews in the South. On a train stop to get something to eat in Greensboro, North Carolina, on the way to a convention, one side of the station said ‘Colored.’ The other side said ‘White.’ So I said, ‘Let’s go eat in the colored part.’ There was a lot of ruckus, but no violence. After a four-hour standoff, the cops finally let us go. It was a wonderful learning moment. To see colored waiting rooms and to see how segregation in the South worked was really shocking to them.
At Blair, you decided to take typing as opposed to shop class. Why?
I had gotten tired of taking shop. Since seventh grade I had been making these wooden trays. My mother had a pile of them in the kitchen with little holes for toothpicks in them. And for me, the end of it came in metal shop. And so I decided to take typing with the girls in 10th grade. I was the only boy in the class. But I really took to it, and I could type 90 words a minute, which was really fast. It turned out to be the key to my getting hired at the Washington Evening Star [the afternoon newspaper that closed in 1981] as a copyboy at age 16.
Typing was one of the only classes you excelled at, and your father worried you wouldn’t amount to anything. In Chasing History, you described yourself as a teen truant and pool shark who drag-raced at 90 miles an hour on Colesville Road and nearly flunked out of Blair. How did you pull yourself out of the spiral?
The great fear a lot of us had was not juvenile court. It was to be sent to this place called Loch Raven, the juvenile prison outside Baltimore. I was saved when I got that copyboy job at the Star.
In the closing weeks of the Eisenhower administration in 1960, I had only been at the Star for a few weeks. The head copyboy says, ‘Bernstein, go out to Burning Tree Country Club in Bethesda. Ike is playing golf out there, we have a photographer, he’ll shoot it, and you’ll run the film back to the office.’ So I go out to Burning Tree and I have this yellow and green little card that identifies me as an employee of the Washington Evening Star and it looks official. It’s not really a press card. The head caddy escorts me to this putting green, where the president of the United States is sinking putts with one Secret Service man.
And I’m 12 feet away from the president, the first president I’d ever seen. And by then I had a reporter’s notebook that I carried in my pocket and I saw the brown spots on Ike’s hands so I wrote it down for the hell of it, then I got the roll of film from the photographer and I was out of there. But you know, you can’t imagine that kind of experience happening to a kid today.
Was there a moment when you knew you wanted to be a newspaperman?
Just before I was hired by the Washington Evening Star, I was led out into the newsroom for the first time. I experienced the most singular moment in my life…there was a clattering of typewriters and rumbling of the presses under my feet, people yelling ‘Copy!’ as if they were on the most urgent errands in the nation. A copyboy handed me a warm paper just off the presses, and I knew in that instant I wanted to be a newspaperman.
What was it like to be a full-time high school student and a part-time copyboy?
Two weeks before the 1960 election, the Nixon-Kennedy race was so close [that] the thought was that Maryland could make the difference. And the Star’s state editor said, ‘John Kennedy, the Democratic nominee, is coming to your high school tomorrow. Paul Hope, senior political reporter, will be with the candidate. You know the grounds; you know Montgomery Blair.’ I was told to just take notes of what the crowd is doing and how it interacts with Kennedy. When he arrives, Kennedy is in the back of an open convertible, waving, then he got up, his limo is going about 8 mph, and he jumps out of the car in his white shirt and jacket while it’s moving. And he started running into the crowd. I’ve never seen anything like it. The crowd went wild, especially the women and girls.
After Kennedy left and I saw the principal standing on the steps, I go past Mr. Shaw, who looks at me and says, ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ I respond, ‘I work for the Star.’ It was a great moment because I had had nothing but trouble with Mr. Shaw.
What was it like to see demonstrations in downtown Bethesda in front of the segregated Hiser Theater?
I was riding home with the state editor, George Porter, who lived around the corner from me and who was one of my mentors. He said, ‘Let’s go to Bethesda and see these demonstrations.’ We got there and I got out of the car with my notebook and I started talking to the pickets about why they were there. There were also counterpickets led by George Lincoln Rockwell, who had started the American Nazi Party in Northern Virginia. I had to remind myself: This was downtown Bethesda? The business district? Segregated? I actually didn’t know that downtown Bethesda had been segregated until these demonstrations. So I started talking to a young woman who was at a table with all the literature and I ask: How long are you going to keep this picketing going? And she said, ‘[Until] we can see the movie.’ Very moving.
Julius Hobson, a civil rights activist who led some sit-ins, said something to me that I carried with me the whole time that I was at the Star. He said, ‘Maryland may be a border state, but it’s really part of the South, and the Eastern Shore of Maryland is Mississippi.’ He was absolutely right. We covered our community like it was the Deep South. It was astonishing.
You called that day in sixth grade in 1955 ‘the worst day’ of your life. What would you tell young people today who face such a move?
I’d tell them this: When it came time for seven of us (friends from Harvey Road and a few from the District) to go off to college [in the Washington area], we decided we’d have a dinner club. We’d gather at one of our houses, cook a gourmet meal and it would be a way to learn to cook. My friends and our wives have been having the dinner, once a year, every year for 60 years now. We’re all still very close.
In 1976, you returned to Blair to deliver the commencement address. What was that moment like?
Here’s what I said: The ultimate revenge is to come back to your high school as the commencement speaker, especially me because I barely got out of the place and they only let me out because they didn’t want me around for another year. I was flunking Mr. Adelman’s chemistry course, and after I covered President Kennedy’s inauguration for the Star, Mr. Adelman’s chemistry class interested me even less.
I had gone back through the yearbook to try to find out what had happened to people in my class. It was pretty clear to me [that] those of us in the bottom of the class had probably done a little better than the ones at the top. I said, ‘Never again are you going to feel the pain of high school—so-and-so won’t go with you to the prom. From here on out, it’s not about your teachers’ and your parents’ expectations, but about your own.’
The kids loved the speech, parents kind of liked it, but the faculty was livid. Mr. Shaw was no longer the principal. After the speech, I went up to the new principal to thank him for making me the commencement speaker. He stuttered a little bit and said, ‘You know what? The senior class chose you to be the speaker, and I knew this was not a good idea.’ He said, ‘I went and looked up your records and I said to myself, “We ought to get Connie Chung!”
’ To this day, whenever I see Connie, who was a few years behind me at Blair, I remind her of the principal’s line: ‘We ought to get Connie Chung.’
Lives in: New York
Education: Attended the University of Maryland
Career: Journalist and author
Bibliography: Six nonfiction books, including All the President’s Men in 1974 and Chasing History: A Kid in the Newsroom in 2022
Family: Married to Christine Kuehbeck; two sons from a previous marriage to Nora Ephron
Freelance writer Richard Harris, a veteran of NPR’s All Things Considered and ABC’s Nightline with Ted Koppel, has lived in Bethesda nearly 40 years.