Carl Bernstein repeatedly stressed the need to “pursue the best obtainable version of the truth” as he addressed the audience that filled the Staller Center’s Main Stage for his Presidential Lecture on November 18. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist said the phrase was something he learned early in his journalism career at the Washington Star and Washington Post. Bernstein is Visiting Presidential Professor at Stony Brook University.
In his lecture, “Why Isn’t Our Government Working — And Can It?” he turned to the students — the next generation — and asked them to undo what his generation has done, telling the young people of today to take charge and demand change for the common good that is based in truth.
In the 1960s Washington of his youth, Bernstein said, it never would have occurred to ask the question under discussion — why isn’t our government working and can it? It would have been unthinkable that the U.S. Congress could become completely dysfunctional, that money could become the most important element in our political system, or that working class people and middle class people would be struggling, he said.
He asked the audience to look back 50 years to the era of President John F. Kennedy, to “a country and a political system and a judiciary and a Supreme Court and a Congress that was thoughtfully dealing with the problems and opportunities of America, almost always considering above all else, no matter how fractious the debate, the national interest — looking for practical solutions, ways to come together to benefit the common good.”
Bernstein noted that Kennedy’s famous question at his presidential inauguration, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” casts “a long and shaming shadow on today’s era in Washington.” He said that Kennedy challenged America, its people and political system, and America responded. JFK was talking about the national interest, about our common good as a people.
“Today Washington exists largely in a partisan and ideological cocoon,” he said. “Instead of talking meaningfully about how to move the economy forward with dynamism and with fairness to both the top 1 percent, and the working people, and middle class families who have been choked over the past 20 years in America, we have been subjected to the politics of ideology over problem-solving, of fiction and myth over fact. And now it extends as well to the way we process and receive information in journalism.”
Bernstein pointed out that today we live in an age when people are not looking for the best obtainable version of the truth. They are looking for ideological and partisan ammunition. Real existing facts become unimportant. The “partisan cocoon” is the unit through which information is evaluated and amplified by the media. The common good is now the last consideration.
He quoted journalist Leslie Gelb: “Washington is largely indifferent to truth. Truth has been reduced to a conflict of press releases and a contest of handlers. Truth is judged not by evidence but by a theatrical performance. Truth is fear, fear of opinion polls, fear of special interests, fear of judging others for fear of being judged, fear of losing power and prestige. Truth has become the acceptance of untruths.”
“The best obtainable version of the truth is partly about context,” he continued, “and that’s perhaps the most egregious example of the single failure of our journalism and media today, for too much of it, maybe even most of it, is utterly without context. Facts without context are not truth.”
Bernstein stressed the importance of determining what is news, and focused on the two overriding stories of today — the breakdown of the political system and whether it can be fixed, and whether we are going to be a nation of the wealthy, for the wealthy, by the wealth at the expense of the great majority of our people.
“We are poised at the edge of plutocracy today, and that is big news,” he said. “We need to try to understand it.”
At the end of Bernstein’s lecture, he specifically addressed the students once again, saying that young people know they have been wronged.
Bernstein asked, “What can I tell students in the Class of 2015, or 2016 or 2017 about today’s question?” He said he is cautiously optimistic, but doesn’t think the government can begin to work until the next generation begins to undo everything he discussed previously. He sees a “justified disgust” in young people over the political system, and a great desire to move beyond it.
Bernstein said his generation and those before him accomplished remarkable things — economic and social opportunity for all, civil rights, an unparalleled economic engine, technology, rock ’n’ roll — but his generation has also failed the current generation, leaving very little in terms of opportunity. This is where our political system has led us.
“If we are going to undo what has been done, we have to understand our history and how we got here,” said Bernstein. “And I sense from my students this great desire to understand this history. And one thing’s for sure: The best obtainable version of the truth has got to be part of the process of undoing…I look forward to hearing from you.”
About Carl Bernstein
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, author and political analyst Carl Bernstein is Visiting Presidential Professor at Stony Brook University. For 40 years, from All the President’s Men to A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton, Bernstein’s books, reporting and commentary have revealed the inner workings of government, politics and the hidden stories of Washington and its leaders. In the early 1970s, Bernstein and Bob Woodward broke the Watergate story for The Washington Post, leading to the resignation of President Richard Nixon and setting the standard for modern investigative reporting, for which they and The Post were awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Since then, Bernstein has continued to build on the theme he and Woodward first explored in the Nixon years — the use and abuse of power: political, media, financial and cultural.