Q&A With Carl Bernstein

The item in the October 11 Westword advancing author Carl Bernstein’s appearance at the LoDo Tattered Cover on Monday, October 15, contains only a few snippets from the wide-ranging Q&A reproduced below.

During his conversation with Westword, All the President’s Men co-author Bernstein proved to be a voluble and occasionally combative when discussing his latest book, A Woman in Charge, a wide-ranging biography of former First Lady and current front-running Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. He gets defensive when asked if some of Hillary Clinton’s behavior was in any way Nixonian even though he sets up that parallel in the text, and he takes umbrage at a small negative comment made by the Washington Post’s David Broder in an otherwise sterling review. Specifically, Broder suggested that Bernstein gives short shrift to HC’s Senate years – a suggestion that Bernstein energetically disputes even though just 17 of 554 pages in the biography cover that time period.

Along the way, Bernstein talks about his reasons for taking on Hillary Clinton as a subject; the doubts a significant portion of the American public has about her declarations of faith and love for her husband; Barbara Walters’ turnabout on the book; the difficult portions of HC’s childhood that she typically chooses to gloss over; her “Rosebud moment;” the possibility that she suffers from a tin ear when it comes to public perception of her; the chances a thorough biography of George W. Bush could have derailed his presidency before it ever started; his feelings about being viewed as a journalistic icon; and the good things and bad in today’s media landscape.

He clearly has no trouble taking charge:

Westword (Michael Roberts): It’s my understanding that you started researching the book in 1999. Is that correct?

Carl Bernstein: Yes.

WW: Has the path she’s taken since then surprised you? Or in some ways, has it been a predictable progression?

CB: There are always surprises. Did I expect her to be running for president when I embarked on this? No. I thought she would probably run for the president when I first was thinking about doing a book. What got me started was the idea that after the impeachment, everybody had been so diminished. The president, the Supreme Court, which let the Paula Jones case go forward, Congress, particularly the Republicans, the press, the judiciary. And the one person, really, whose stature had been enhanced was Hillary Clinton. She’d been in the national doghouse for six years until then, largely. The whole dynamic of it was fascinating to me. And also, I just didn’t think that anybody had really captured who this woman was. Almost everything you read was either by acolytes and true believers or by opponents and enemies – or her own self-serving attempts at explaining herself. And I don’t mean self-serving necessarily in a connotative, negative way. Most people, when they write about themselves, write in such a way as they want others to see them. But that was not how many people saw her, as I found out.

WW: You focus on her guardedness, and you also talk about her religious faith and her genuine love for Bill Clinton. And both the faith and the love are things that significant numbers of people out there either doubt or feel are put on…

CB: Well, they’re wrong. You can say, as some people do in the White House, with and around her, that she uses her religiosity in a self-righteous way. But it’s genuine, and no one who knows her thinks otherwise. And she’s never worn it on her sleeve. One of the first things she did when she got to Washington was to join that women’s prayer group I write about with Susan Baker, Jim Baker’s wife. And those women prayed with her on Wednesdays through the presidency. Family and faith are the two great elements of her foundation.

WW: That evidence of her religious faith I think would be tremendously beneficial to her in a presidential campaign, enhancing her image on a whole bunch of different levels. But for some reason, that doesn’t always connect with some people. Do you have a guess as to why it’s not?

CB: It would be a guess. My speculation, and I try not to speculate in this book – but if there is a problem with people who doubt her genuine religiosity, it would have to do either with a predisposition of those people not to believe her about much of anything, and also the fact that sometimes she’s candid about herself and sometimes she’s just the opposite. You can get into a girl-who-cried-wolf situation. One of the things I say in the last chapter is that she’s had a difficult relationship to the truth. I think one of the thing the book does is, when you get to the end of the book, you can say, “Now I understand where she was truthful and where she was less than truthful as she went through her life, and particularly the White House years. But I also understand what the pressures were, what the context was.” Have you seen my website?

WW: I have.

CB: Well, those reviews I’ve put up there are very interesting. It seems to me that reviewers have found the book to be – well, I’m humbled by how terrific the reviews have been. But it seems to me that they’ve found the book to be sympathetic for the most part. And I wasn’t sure that would be the case.

WW: I read that Barbara Walters said she thought it was a mean book.

CB: (Laughs). Barbara Walters said that, and then I called Barbara Walters, and I said, “Barbara, how can you say that? I don’t think you’ve read the book.” And she said, “No, I didn’t read the book.” And I said, “Barbara, how can you do that?” And she said, “That’s what I was told.” And I said, “Who told you that?” And then I said, “Barbara, I think you’d better let me come on The View.” So I went on The View and I think Barbara no longer holds that view. You should take a look at that broadcast.

WW: So she’s recanted her meanness evaluation?

CB: Absolutely she did. She put me on The View afterwards, because I said, “How in the world could you have concluded that?” And she said, “I never read the book”! I think you should look at that episode, because it was really fun and terrific, and Barbara kept praising the book.

WW: One of the many interesting aspects about the book are the sections about her childhood and the family dynamic in which she grew up. In some ways, it strikes me that a wider knowledge of that among the public would make her a more sympathetic figure, and yet she doesn’t seem to want that out there, or downplays that to a significant degree.

CB: Well, none of us would like to go out there and say, “My father was really a pretty awful guy most of the time.” Look, what I’ve done here is, I hope, what good journalism and good biography really is, which is the best obtainable version of the truth. And I believe that the reaction of most people, if I can generalize… A guy came up to me on an airplane the other day and said, “My wife just finished your book, and she’s always hated Hillary. And she said, ‘I still won’t vote for her, but I feel like I really understand her now, and I really have some feeling for her.’” I think that’s what this book does. I think it humanizes her in a way she deserves to be humanized simply by somebody finally looking at her whole life and going to the people who were closest to her in her formative experiences who were available as sources, most of whom I have named, and you get a completely different story from either the hagiography or the trash and the polemics and the ideologically driven stuff. And her own book, I’ve written what I think of her own book in there. It’s a political document, largely. It’s intended to gloss over the parts of her life that were the most difficult in many ways. She never mentioned in there, for instance, that Bill Clinton wanted to leave the marriage. If you’re going to write a memoir, you probably ought to include that kind of thing if you’re really going to write a straightforward account of your life.

WW: She also brushed over a number of things in a very quick manner, including her not passing the bar in D.C.

CB: I think if there’s a Rosebud moment, that might be it. I went to her law partners, I went to Webb Hubbell, I went to her closest friend in law school, and I said, “Did you know Hillary flunked the bar?” And they couldn’t believe it. They were flabbergasted. She had gone around for many years saying she’d been offered all these jobs after she worked for the Watergate committee to work for all these Washington law firms, and I’m sure that’s true. The only thing is, she couldn’t go to work there except as a paralegal unless she took the bar again, and she never took it. She chose to follow Bill Clinton to Arkansas. But what interests me about the reaction to the book is, many people in the campaign… At first, I think the campaign was afraid of the book. And so before they’d gotten a copy, they said, “It’s old news.” That didn’t work, and now I think it’s pretty well established as you can see by those reviews that this is about as close to a definitive account of her life as we’re going to get for a while. And a number of people in the campaign, including some people who would be in a Clinton cabinet, I assume, have said to me, “It’s amazing. I never knew this about her life. It makes her much more appealing to me.” And I think that’s the key. There’s an aspect of her that’s been so perhaps beaten down by opponents, enemies, the press. And she’s not introspective. She’s never had much of an interest in introspection, which is very unusual or interesting about a religious person.

WW: A number of times in the book, you use the term “tin ear.” It is possible she has a tin ear about her own story in the sense that there are aspects of it that would make her seem more sympathetic but she has the impression it would have the opposite effect on people?

CB: I think one of the things that you try to do as a biographer is you take all the information you have and decide what’s important, and you lay it out there. And you try not to speculate beyond that about a person’s motives. So I don’t want to duck your question, but I want to say I think it’s very important not to be inside her head in terms of motives beyond the point that I know she’s expressed to others or beyond the point where something might be obvious. Look, candor in public life is very difficult. And I think also these are painful episodes, a lot of them. She chooses to see and describe things either as she wants them to be perceived or thinks she experienced them. I don’t think self-perception is her strongest suit.

WW: One of the things I felt the book gave me was a deeper understanding of her decision not to ever say she had made a mistake to authorize force in Iraq. In reading about what happened to her after making the “cookies and teas” comments and the stand-by-your-man/Tammy Wynette remark, it was clear how she’d her enemies had used those sound clips against her by playing them over and over again. I think she knows better than anyone that if she ever said she’d made a mistake, her opponents would do the same thing with that clip, too.

CB: I think it’s a very careful political decision. First of all, she genuinely believes in presidents having that kind of leverage and that kind of power. She explained it very well about her husband having to deal with Saddam Hussein and concern about weapons of mass destruction. But what she’s said since is, I’ve I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have voted that way. That raises any number of questions, but I think for many reasons, almost all of them political, for her to stand up and say, “I made a mistake,” she decided that would not be a wise thing to do. And I think to a large extent, she has succeeded in getting past the deficit of that vote. It could have been a lot worse. Nonetheless, there is something that strikes many people as disingenuous about her saying she thought she was just authorizing George Bush to go back to the U.N. Because very few people had that fantasy.

WW: One of the things that occurred to me while reading the book – and it may be very well because of your history, but also because of the facts that you present – is that a number of her reactions in the wake of things like the Travel Office scandal struck me as distinctly Nixonian. Are there comparisons between the two of them in terms of their behavior in times of tremendous political stress?

CB: First of all, Nixon’s behavior wasn’t just in times of tremendous political distress. Nixon had a paranoid aspect. On top of which, if you really look at these tapes, as well as the Final Days that we wrote, and really what happened during the Nixon years, you don’t hear him talking about the country, the good of the country. You hear him talking about “me,” “I.” Almost never is there any consideration about doing the right thing. It’s about “What do we do to screw our enemies?” I don’t think she’s the same way. Does she have enemies, and did she maintain a kind of enemies list? I believe there’s a quote to that effect in there.

WW: There is indeed. And I was going to mention another quote along those lines. I’m paraphrasing, but it was something like, “Bill Clinton gets angry and forgets about it. Hillary gets angry and never forgets.”

CB: I put things in the book because they resonate and because they have a reason to be there. But one of the things I’m learning more and more as a journalist is how important it is to not use interviews to then say things that you wouldn’t say in your story in your book. Which is to say make big comparisons with Nixon or Reagan or anyone else. And I don’t mean this toward your questions or you at all. But it’s funny: I just finished reading the new Philip Roth book, and Roth also goes into this. We write what we write because that’s what we want to write, and that’s what we want to report. And the temptation to go on television and bring the house down by going farther than what we write, so that there can be a headline that says, “Bernstein Says Hillary Nixonian,” is really unfair to her, and it’s unfair to me. And I think it’s a really interesting journalistic question for all of us. So what I’m trying to do in the aftermath of the book is to try to explain some things and try to be responsive and at the same time not get reckless. I think it’s important for your readers to know. The most interesting thing about the after-publishing of this book to me is, in some regard, the desire of so many people to make the book do what they want it to do. When in fact what I’m hoping the book does is say, look, this is the most important political moment in this country in a long time, and here we finally have a book that finally tells us who this woman who may be the next president of the United States or the nominee of her party, really is. It gives us enough of her real life, as she’s lived it, and as those who have seen her and worked with her and adored her and opposed and all the rest, we finally have a chance to get a really nuanced picture of who she is, and say to ourselves, “All right. Now I understand better where she came from. What she’s done. What she hasn’t done. What I think her marriage is about, or whatever. And now that I know that, do I want to vote for her, and don’t I want to vote for her.” But with this book, anybody can bring their own values to the task of looking at this person as a whole, living, breathing, real human being. Flesh and blood, not cardboard caricature. And also, it’s a great tale. This is some kind of remarkable life, and the persistence and the struggle and the getting knocked down and picking herself up again: It’s a hell of a tale. It has a kind of epic sweep to it. I hope, also, that people don’t approach this as some kind of chore. This should be fun to read.

WW: You mentioned the good reviews, and I read the one on your website that David Broder of the Washington Post wrote. It was a very positive review, but it mentioned that, in his view, the book ended too soon. You do go through her being elected to the Senate and as close to the present day as possible in fairly brief fashion. Why did you decide not to go into detail in those areas?

CB: It’s interesting. I think all of the detail that’s necessary on the Senate is there because what’s really important about the Senate years is her transformation. Certainly you could go on for twenty pages about her work on the bankruptcy bill. But what’s really important about her time in the Senate is its contrast to her time in the White House, and her methodology, which I do go through, it seems to me, at some length. Which is to say she went about it almost completely the opposite as she did in the White House, and she didn’t take strong positions on many of the major issues in her time in the Senate. That to me is the important thing about the Senate years, and why that might be. Now, I have written an after-word for the paperback when it comes out. But it talks more about her personal transformation, but not in the Senate years and her running for the president. But I don’t know what more you’d want to say about her time in the Senate. I’m open to suggestions. But there’s not a lot of legislation there. What she’s really done is be a really effective Senate for the people of New York. I discuss her vote on the war at some length, and I think bring some new reporting to the task. So that’s really in many ways, of all the stands she took in the Senate, that’s probably the most important. I talk about her consistency about a woman’s right to choose. I don’t want to bore the reader with minutia about the mechanics of legislation of interest to the people of New York. I think I give a pretty good picture of what the Senate years have been. But more important than that, it took this campaign to see it more clearly, which is why I’ve done it for the paperback, is I think there’s been much more of a personal transformation in her life in the Senate years that is equally important to the legislative questions. I don’t think she’s been a very important senator in terms of national legislation. I think you’d be pretty hard pressed to find anybody who would make that argument. But that’s important, and how it fits into her running for president, and how different it was from when she was in the White House, when she was such a strident advocate.

WW: You mention that she has shown through her career the ability to change, and the most recent years strike me as an example of that. All kinds of mistakes that she made during the White House years in terms of perception, she is not making now.

CB: I think she’s a much more sure-footed and self-satisfied human being than she was during the White House years. That’s what I go to in the chapter that will be in the after-word of the paperback. But I think it’s taken this campaign, combined with looking at the Senate years together, to be able to see that. And then to talk to individuals about why. But at the time, when I finished writing the book, I don’t think you could go much further about the Senate years than I’ve gone. And I think it would be a great mistake to write a huge section about Hillary Clinton in the Senate and create the impression that she’s been what she’s really been, which is an important Senator, because she’s become a personally and politically transformed person. But it has almost nothing to do with the legislative function of the U.S. Senate. It has to do with becoming her party’s biggest fundraiser, it’s greatest celebrity. It has to do with her marriage. But it doesn’t have to do with the kind of stuff that somebody like Arlen Spector or Joe Biden or Chris Dodd or any other number of senators up there. Kay Bailey Hutchinson.

WW: What are the next projects you’re looking at tackling beyond the paperback edition of the book?

CB: Don’t know yet. I’m still trying to think what I’m really interested in doing next. It’s been a really wonderful experience to write about a woman. But I don’t know what’s going to be the next subject. This has been a really terrific experience, to be able to have this book come out now and have it play a role. I suspect that if we had had a biography, a real biography of George Bush in the year 2000, by some real journalists who had really looked at his life and done it justice, I don’ think he would have been elected president. I don’t think that’s the case with this book. People who read this book, many of them might think, I want her to be president, and some others might think, No, I don’t want her to be. But finally we have an ability to know who this person is, and I hope there are some other books about some of the other candidates that give us that opportunity. But if we’d had that in the year 2000, I think it would have made a difference.

WW: Folks all the time decry the state of current journalism in comparison with years past, and your name is frequently used as an example of the way things should be done. Is that something you take pride in? Or are you a little uncomfortable with that?

CB: Obviously, it’s very gratifying when people think of my work and Bob [Woodward]’s work and our work as representing our craft at a level that it ought to aspire to. But I think you’ve got to be careful about mythologizing the past. There are some awful great newspapers and great reporters around, and almost everything we know about the Bush presidency we know because reporters have gone in there despite the terrible obstacles that have been put in front of them by George Bush and Condoleezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. You might take a look at the two pieces on my website I wrote about this – about comparing, to some extent, the Nixon and Bush presidencies. But what we know about this presidency that’s true and real and contextual we know from reporters, not from the subterfuge and mendacity of this president and the men and women around him. And we don’t know it from congressional oversight, either. Because what little congressional oversight there’s been has been the result of things that were pried open by the press. Abu Ghraib to suspension of the Geneva Convention by the man who went on to become the attorney general of the United States, who did this in the name of the president of the United States as his counsel… I think there’s been an awful lot of good reporting about this presidency. I think the modern Washington Post, the modern Wall Street Journal, the modern New York Times – there’s been an awful lot of great reporting there. It doesn’t mean that’s always the case with newspapers, or broadcast journalism even more grievously, despite the increased air time for cable news… I wrote a piece in 1992 called “The Triumph of Idiot Culture.” It was a cover story for the New Republic, which is about gossip and sensationalism and manufactured controversy becoming much more of a staple of our news diet. And I think it’s a huge problem.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts