Forty years after his investigative reporting helped topple a U.S. president, former Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein came to Fresno for the first time Wednesday and told an large gathering at Saroyan Theater that America's future looks bleak because of politicians who no longer work for the common good and many journalists who don't report the truth.
During the Watergate scandal that led to President Richard Nixon's resignation in August 1974, Bernstein said he and other journalists searched for the "best attainable version of the truth, so people could read and process the information."
Nowadays, reporters from Fox News, MSNBC, talk radio and other outlets love gossip and sensationalism and no longer print or say information supported by facts, Bernstein said. Instead, "the news is ideological and partisan ammunition to reinforce what they already believe in," he said.
Meantime, politicians have resorted to name-calling and slurs. "The common good is their last consideration," he said.
Bernstein was invited by the San Joaquin Valley Town Hall, a nonprofit, all-volunteer organization that has brought famous people from all walks of life to the Valley for more than seven decades. Organizers said they paid Bernstein about $27,000 plus air fare from New York for his two-hour lecture and private lunch with members.
Mayor Ashley Swearengin introduced Bernstein to the hundreds of people who packed the lower level of Saroyan Theatre to hear the once-dashing reporter who, along with reporter Bob Woodward, broke the Watergate scandal in the 1970s that led to the eventual resignation of Nixon and a Pulitzer Prize for public service for the Washington Post.
His and Woodward's book, "All The President's Men," was made into a movie with Dustin Hoffman portraying Bernstein and Robert Redford portraying Woodward.
The Watergate scandal started in June 1972 when burglars broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters. The burglars were later linked to the Nixon administration. When Nixon got caught trying to cover it up, he was forced to resign.
Now 70, Bernstein said he wondered if Watergate happened today, would the same result happen. Nixon was forced to resign, he said, because both Democratic and Republican politicians knew he had committed a crime and they joined forces to end his presidency.
Today's politicians are deeply split by partisanship and ideology, he said.
Bernstein then asked the crowd if America has turned into "a nation for the wealthy at the expense of the majority of the people."
Since Watergate, Bernstein has written or co-authored several other books, including works about Pope John Paul II and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Growing up in racially divided Washington, D.C., Bernstein said he started his career in high school as a copy boy for the Washington Star. He said the first president he covered was John F. Kennedy in the early 1960s. Even today, he said, he still remembers JFK's words, his cadence and his famous challenge to all Americans: "Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country."
"His speech still resonates today," Bernstein said. "But it cast a shaming shadow over Washington, D.C."
Before his lecture, Bernstein met with students from Fresno High, Central High, University High and from the Center for Advanced Research and Technology in Clovis. In his lecture he told the crowd that his generation has ruined America by allowing politicians to run roughshod over the middle class and saddled their children with enormous debt. "How can the middle class struggle to stay afloat in one of the richest countries in the world?" he asked, with many in the crowd his age.
America's best hope lies with the latest generation of high school students who he said "understands the problems, exhibits justified disgust and has a great desire to move beyond ideological warfare."
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6434, firstname.lastname@example.org or @beecourts on Twitter.