A subject worthyof his time

Times Staff Writer

For Carl Bernstein, the drill was all too familiar: He was hot on the trail of White House intrigue that led him deep into a thicket of scandals, and there were powerful forces trying to discredit his work, even before it was published. But this time the target was Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-New York), not Richard M. Nixon. And as Bernstein worked on his new biography, “A Woman in Charge,” he saw parallels between this book and the Watergate newspaper coverage that made him and Bob Woodward famous.

“There is a Nixonian aspect to the way the Clintons treat people whom they perceive as problematic, and others have pointed this out as well,” said Bernstein, 63, lounging in the living room of his swank Manhattan apartment. “There are a lot of comparisons to Watergate, because both projects were about going through fire with powerful people who try to make your conduct the issue instead of their own.”

Amid great media fanfare, Bernstein’s new book is being released this week, along with a competing biography of Clinton, “Her Way,” by Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr. Early reviews of “A Woman in Charge” have been mixed, with some praising Bernstein for having written a substantial biography, while others complain the book covers familiar ground and has little to say about Clinton’s years as a senator.


The author’s difficulties in getting the story clearly influenced his final product: Though Bill and Hillary Clinton promised to speak with him, Bernstein said, they never did. At the outset, Robert Barnett, a powerful Washington attorney and author’s representative who has negotiated book deals for both Clintons, told Bernstein he shouldn’t write the book because nobody would talk to him. When publication neared, the Clintons sought (with no luck) to get an early copy. Meanwhile, Bill Clinton’s staff complained after a spokesman for Knopf, the book’s publisher, made public statements that the new book would differ on key points with “Living History,” Hillary’s 2003 autobiography.

“I think the irony here is that I’ve produced an evenhanded book,” Bernstein said, in contrast to the anti-Hillary screeds and pro-Hillary testimonials that dominate the more than 50 books written about her. “And biography matters, especially during a presidential campaign, because it’s often the only way voters can gain a real view of candidates, beyond sound bites.” Sounding indignant, Bernstein said Sen. Clinton should have spoken with him, because he is not an enemy. It is one thing for a politician to be cautious, he said, but quite another for the former first lady and her husband to “demonize” those writers whose books they can’t control.

(Barnett declined to comment. However, Philippe Reines, Sen. Clinton’s spokesman, discounted the notion that his boss ever agreed to speak with Bernstein, saying: “As is the case with dozens of authors who have been down this road, he was informed many times, by many people, over many, many years that he should not expect any cooperation.” As for the new book, Reines said Americans don’t care about “an author’s agenda to take old stories and rehash for cash.”)

Bernstein shrugs off such criticism. He’s clearly mellowed since the days when he was an intense, chain-smoking journalist at the Washington Post who helped topple a president. Today, he’s a silver-haired man with hard-etched lines in his face and a softening middle. He’s eager to talk about his latest book, which represents a literary reemergence for him -- a personal comeback in a career dogged by dubious celebrity.

Woodward and Bernstein took different paths after their Pulitzer Prize-winning triumph, which also included two bestselling Watergate books and the 1976 Oscar-winning film “All the President’s Men,” in which Dustin Hoffman portrayed Bernstein and Robert Redford was his partner. While Woodward went on to become a chronicler of Washington, D.C., power, a restless Bernstein left the Post in 1977.

His public troubles began two years later, when his marriage to journalist Nora Ephron crumbled amid revelations that he had been carrying on an affair while she was pregnant. Ephron retaliated by writing “Heartburn,” a tart, thinly veiled novel (later made into a movie) about their troubled marriage. She delivered a zinger that would haunt Bernstein for years -- writing that the character based on him in her novel “was a man capable of having sex with a Venetian blind.”


Bernstein, drawn by New York’s bright lights and fickle media jungle, went on to work at Vanity Fair, ABC-TV and Time. He also penned books about Pope John Paul II and his parents’ experiences as members of the Communist Party. But despite modest success, his personal life got more attention, with tabloid reports of dissolute club-hopping and dates with Elizabeth Taylor, Shirley MacLaine and Bianca Jagger.

In 1999, 20 years after the breakup of his marriage, Bernstein was looking for a third act. He snared a reported $750,000 advance from Knopf for the Hillary Clinton biography and began work on a book that was expected to be done in 2003. That year he married his third wife, Christine Kuehbeck, but the manuscript was late. Indeed, there were whispers in the book world that it might never appear. Bernstein bridled at the notion he had writer’s block, saying instead that he procrastinated before finally completing the manuscript. The main problem was that he had difficulties piecing together the puzzle.

“For me, the ‘Rosebud’ moment was going back to the interviews I had done, the original reporting on her life,” Bernstein said. “There has been a lot written about Hillary Clinton, some of it truly excellent. But it never came together as a whole, and that was my biggest challenge. When I digested all this other information and then reread all of my original material, I finally found the voice, the key to telling this story.”

Those who adore Hillary (and those who despise her) will find anecdotes to savor in Bernstein’s account. But the book aims higher, trying to illuminate a person who remains a mystery to millions. To pry open that truth, the author tracked down sources who might shed light on Clinton’s character. He spoke to friends, mentors and staffers; he gained access to the papers of the late attorney Diane Blair, one of Clinton’s closest friends.

The work paid off. Doris Kearns Goodwin, a historian who knows Bernstein and agreed to be interviewed by him, said, “He thoroughly steeped himself in researching her life. He was definitely committed to the goal of producing a balanced and nuanced portrait.” In Hillary Clinton, Goodwin said, “he had found a project that totally engaged his passion.”

Religion and family offered key glimpses: No one should doubt the effect of Clinton’s deep faith on her behavior, the author said: “There are people around her who believe she uses religion as a mask to cover her faults and those of Bill -- the idea of loving the sinner and hating the sin. It allows her to excuse many things. But that same faith drives much of what she has done, the idea that you should do all you can for the public good.”


As for family, Bernstein offers a dark portrait of Clinton’s father, Hugh Rodham. Although Clinton conceded her father’s gruff and domineering character in her autobiography, Bernstein said he was far more abusive and tyrannical than she admitted.

“This was way beyond tough love; this was pathological,” he said. “She absorbed humiliation from him, as her mother did.... He was the most controlling, sour, unfulfilled man you can imagine.”

Clinton spent a lifetime trying to please him, to accommodate his aberrant behavior. Her mother did the same, vowing that there would be no divorce in their family. Bernstein found an eerie similarity in Hillary’s reactions to Bill Clinton’s womanizing: She has forgiven him again and again while savaging the women who dare to accuse him. “You have to ask, what kind of feminist goes after the women and forgives the husband over and over?” said Bernstein. “It’s troubling.”