Two lives ever defined by Watergate

For Woodward and Bernstein, post-Pulitzer fame has been a mixed blessing.

Reading Woodward and Bernstein: Life in the Shadow of Watergate reminded me a lot of attending my high school reunion. On the one hand, it was fun to soak up bits of gossip about people once significant to me. On the other hand, I wasn't entirely certain why it should matter anymore.

For those of us who lived through Watergate (and I certainly qualify – I was 14 the summer of the break-in and 17 the day that Nixon resigned – young and impressionable enough to immediately embrace these two Washington Post reporters as heroes), Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein will never lose their fascination. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman didn't have to play them in the movie for us to understand that these two young strivers (both still under 30) had altered the very culture of journalism in Washington, D.C., bringing to it a scrappy unwillingness to accept "no comment" as the end to a story.

But if Woodward and Bernstein were "the boys" that everyone loved on the crest of Watergate, the succeeding years have not always been as kind. Woodward – who has gone on to pen 11 more books after the two he and Bernstein wrote together on Watergate and Nixon – remains a huge name in journalism and yet weathers frequent criticism for what Shepard calls "a lack of analysis, a dearth of attribution, and a penchant for highly detailed, novelistic re-creations of scenes that were unrecorded, except in the memory of participants."

Bernstein, who has written two books (one about his parents and another on a pope) and is now working on a third about Hillary Rodham Clinton, is in some ways better known for a messy personal life, including his infamous divorce from Nora Ephron, chronicled in her novel "Heartburn." (Dustin Hoffman turned down that film role, uncomfortable at casting a real person in so negative a light.)

But it's the degree to which both men have had their lives shaped by Watergate that intrigues Alicia Shepard, a media critic and journalism professor. She first interviewed Woodward and Bernstein (who neither cooperated with this book nor discouraged others from doing so) for a 2002 magazine piece. She later followed up with numerous interviews with other sources and was one of the first to enjoy access to the pair's Watergate files, recently sold to the University of Texas.

Shepard begins her book by recounting once again the story of the Washington Post's Watergate investigation. It's a great story and I enjoyed reading it all over again, but Shepard doesn't really add very much that's new. The reporters' Watergate files mostly serve to confirm what we already knew (plus bits of trivia such as how much Bernstein's first divorce cost or excerpts from the stacks of fan mail the two ultimately received).

Woodward and Bernstein never claimed to have cracked Watergate alone (it's the public that tends to forget that The Washington Post received that Pulitzer Prize and not the reporters themselves) but it's sad, nonetheless, that Howard Sussman, formerly the Post's former city editor and Woodward's mentor, now says, "I don't have anything good to say about either one of them."

There are certainly some who have been disgruntled with the pair over the years, finding them overly ambitious (Woodward) or undisciplined (Bernstein.) The book, however, contains no smoking guns. Instead, everything we heard early on about "the boys" still seems to be more or less true.

What is perhaps surprising – and touching – is the ongoing relationship the book ascribes to the two men.

Central casting could not have produced a more unlikely buddy team. Woodward was a Yale-educated, workaholic Midwesterner, son of a Republican judge, who gained ground through persistent digging. Bernstein was the authority-hating, deadline-challenged child of a leftist Washington, D.C., family who craved being at the center of the excitement and displayed "flashes of brilliance" – albeit erratically. Their mutual dislike was immediate.

Their past, however, has welded them together, and apparently with time have come respect and affection. One woman who worked for both says, "They are very close in their own unique way ... they both understand each other's shortcomings. They are loyal to each other like brothers."

It's amazing to remember how young and unempowered they were (each earning less than $20,000 a year as metro reporters with Bernstein on the verge of losing his job) when fame and fortune hit them like a tidal wave. Both almost immediately made second marriages that didn't last (and then shared a divorce lawyer) and were forced – in their different ways – to learn to navigate the strange new landscape of life as a famous person.

It would be nice to be able to extract some larger lesson from their remarkable story, but in some ways, in the end, it's the same tale we all could tell. A whole lot of very surprising stuff has happened to us since high school, and yet, in so many ways, we haven't changed a bit.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments to Marjorie Kehe.

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