Memoirs are one of my favorite genres of books. Recently, I read Carl Bernstein’s Chasing History: A Kid in the Newsroom (Henry Holt and Co., 2022) and William Barr’s One Damn Thing After Another: Memoirs of an Attorney General (William Morrow, 2022). I read these books back-to-back.
Dueling memoirs. What could these stories have in common? Quite a lot actually. Bernstein who helped bring down a corrupt president, and Barr who routinely enabled one to stay in office.
Not surprisingly, Bernstein and Barr were both profoundly shaped by their early lives. Each pursued their dreams and impacted the history of this country. Political history is like an event impacting a tree. It is absorbed into the tree, evident in the tree’s inner growth history, perhaps by outward appearance, but the tree marches forward, banged up yet climbing skyward. With Bernstein it was Watergate, and Barr as a government attorney fueling the deeds of a president.
In reality, these two men could not be more different. Bernstein a progressive, Barr a conservative. Bernstein a not so strict Jew, Barr a devout Catholic. Bernstein did not like school, flunked out, and learned his skills on the job. Barr excelled in the scholastic environment and earned his a Master’s Degree in Chinese studies and a Juris Doctor from George Washington University. Bernstein covered the underbelly of society as a reporter. Barr’s clients were wealthy corporations and the federal government.
I have written a separate review of each book (see the Recent Post). Bernstein’s book was not about Watergate, it was the story of becoming a reporter in Washington, DC, his hometown. The book ended with him joining the Washington Post. Barr covered his entire life and he had enough ink to include a few chapters on his favorite issues.
Both men are in their 70s and driven by what they do and what they believe. Both work in public arenas, though neither seem to enjoy the personal limelight. Both men were shaped by the 1960s, by their families, religious beliefs, education and their environments. The work of these men later in life would embrace their values, belief systems and sense of justice, gained from this decade.
Of the two books, Barr’s is the most political and ideological. His was also the most difficult for me to read because it was the most pointed, and it contained little self-awareness or contrition. All of us have things we regret or would be differently, especially when we believe we are infallible and lean on our dogma. Bernstein was certainly not perfect, as his later life would publicly reveal. With age, he seems to have become more circumspect, something missing from Barr’s nearly 600 page manuscript.