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Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein's investigation into a seemingly innocuous 1972 break-in at the Watergate office complex in Washington D.C. led to the discovery of one of the most famous political scandals in American history and the toppling of Richard M. Nixon's presidency. With fellow reporter Bob Woodward, Bernstein uncovered the connection between Nixon's re-election campaign and a quintet of burglars caught attempting to wiretap the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate. As detailed in their book All the President's Men (1976), which became a major motion picture that same year, Bernstein and Woodward's efforts spurred the Senate and House to launch their own investigations into the affair, which resulted in Nixon's resignation and jail terms for many of his staff. Bernstein would later enjoy success as a reporter and bureau chief for ABC News as well as an author and biographer. But his work on the Watergate scandal remained his most significant journalistic effort - one that not only upheld the profession's commitment to honesty and fair reporting, but that also helped to change the course of American history.
Born Feb. 14, 1944 in Washington, D.C., Carl Bernstein was the son of trade unionists Alfred and Sylvia Bernstein, whose membership in the American Communist Party resulted in their blacklisting as well as a period of hiding after the execution of accused Communist spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1953. Their son began his career in journalism at the age of 16 as a copyboy for The Washington Star, which he was forced to leave due to his lack of a college degree. In 1965, he joined the reporting staff at the Elizabeth Daily News in New Jersey, where he captured the state press association's top prizes for investigative reporting, feature writing and deadline news. The following year, he became a reporter for the Washington Post, where he quickly established himself as one of the paper's best stylists. However, Bernstein's focus on alternative politics and the counterculture movement ran afoul of the paper's editor, Ben Bradlee, who frequently quashed his story ideas.
In 1972, Bernstein and fellow Post reporter Bob Woodward were assigned to cover a break-in at the Watergate office complex, where the Democratic National Committee kept its headquarters. Five men had been arrested while removing electronic devices from the party's campaign offices, and police discovered the name of former CIA agent E. Howard Hunt in address books owned by two of the burglars. With the aid of an anonymous source nicknamed "Deep Throat" - who was revealed three decades later as former FBI Deputy Director William Mark Felt., Sr. - Bernstein and Woodward revealed in a series of articles that Hunt had been a key figure in a plan to wiretap the Democratic Party offices hatched by G. Gordon Liddy, general counsel to the Committee for the Re-Election of President Richard M. Nixon (CRP), as well as Attorney General John Mitchell and Presidential Counsel John Dean. Further investigations uncovered that the burglars, all of whom were involved in some way with CRP, had been paid $25,000 in "hush money" by the Nixon campaign, which vigorously denied involvement in the scheme.
In 1973, Nixon's advisor, John Dean, revealed to a Senate Committee that the president had been fully involved in the scheme and subsequent cover-up, as evidenced by tape recordings of meetings in which Nixon discussed the Watergate break-in with his staff. As a result, Nixon became the first president in U.S. history to resign from office, while many of his key staff members, including Mitchell, Liddy, Hunt, White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, and Nixon Special Counsel John Erlichman and Charles Colson, served various lengths of prison terms. Bernstein and Woodward's investigation into the Watergate scandal earned the Post a Pulitzer Prize in journalism as well as a best-selling non-fiction book in All the President's Men (1974), which served as the basis for the Oscar-winning 1976 film of the same name and starred Dustin Hoffman as Bernstein. A follow-up book, The Final Days, was published that same year, while Bernstein himself entered into his second marriage to writer-director Nora Ephron.
Bernstein left the Post in 1976 to work as a Washington bureau chief and later senior correspondent for ABC News. While there, he broke several significant stories, including the revelation that Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon's true reason for invading Lebanon during the 1982 "Operation Peace for Gallilee" action was to drive the Palestinian Liberation Organization out of the country and not to establish a security zone, as he had stated to his cabinet. Bernstein also uncovered a covert agreement between the United States, Egypt, China and Pakistan to arm Afghanistan rebels against the Soviets, and the CIA's attempt to control the mass media through Operation Mockingbird. Bernstein subsequently left ABC for TIME magazine, which sent him to Iraq in 1989 to cover Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. Three years later, he wrote a cover story about an alliance between Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan, which later informed His Holiness, a 1998 biography of the Pope that connected his support of the Solidarity movement in his native Poland to the downfall of Communism in Europe. During this period, Bernstein also published Loyalties: A Son's Memoir (1989), which detailed his parents' struggle against McCarthyism.
However, his image as a crusading journalist was sullied by his very public affair with Margaret Jay, wife of U.K. ambassador to the United States, Peter Jay. The affair and its deleterious effect on his marriage to Ephron was detailed in her 1983 novel Heartburn, which later served as the basis for a 1986 feature of the same name, with Jack Nicholson as an all-but-in-name-only Bernstein. Though his Watergate-breaking cohort Woodward would remain more firmly in the public eye through the years due to authoring many controversial books, Bernstein continued to provide news and analysis to a wide variety of media sources, including Newsweek, The New Republic and The Daily Beast while scoring another best-selling book with A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton (2008).
By Paul Gaita
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