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Cap Times: Carl Bernstein with David Maraniss Coming to Idea Fest Sept. 15

Read Paul Fanlund’s full column here

Early in his memoir about his entrée into newspapering, Carl Bernstein recalled his first time a big story broke — an “eruption” he called it — at the now-defunct Washington Evening Star.

“A police call on the city desk squawk box reported the possible electrocution of at least two victims at one of the city’s public swimming pools,” Bernstein wrote. The supervising editor motioned over a team of reporters and gave them instructions. Bernstein watched as they tore out in separate directions — to the scene of the accident, to two local hospitals and to police headquarters. A 10-year-old boy and a lifeguard who tried to save him had been electrocuted. An electrician had been repairing wires on the pool and his 9-year-old son, who was with him, had tragically turned on a switch.

Seventy-five minutes or so after the police dispatcher’s first call, the last paragraph of an extensive story was reaching the newspaper’s composing room to be set into type.

“I felt, for the first time, the adrenaline rush of a newspaper rising to a story,” Bernstein wrote.

He was 16 at the time and barely paying enough attention to his formal education to finish high school, but he was getting his preferred education as a newspaper copy boy, the first rung on a ladder that would lead to immortality as co-author of the Washington Post’s reporting on Watergate, arguably the most consequential investigative journalism in U.S. history.

Next month, people in Madison will get the chance to hear Bernstein talk in person about his colorful early career, his Watergate recollections and the ongoing era of Donald Trump.

And it won’t be just any conversation with an ordinary interviewer.

Bernstein will be interviewed by his longtime friend and fellow Washington Post icon David Maraniss. Both are Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists and acclaimed authors.

Any interview by Maraniss is special. He is perhaps Madison’s most accomplished author and journalist, a West High School graduate whose father, Elliott, was once editor of the Cap Times. A fixture of Cap Times Idea Fest since it began in 2017, Maraniss has invited many national figures to Madison, starting in the first year with Marty Baron, then the Post’s top editor.

Through the years, I have personally thanked Post notables such as Baron, Dan Balz, Amy Goldstein, Carol Leonnig, Alexandra Petri, Catherine Rampell and Phil Rucker, among others, for making the not-all-that-easy trip to Madison. They often cite their admiration of Maraniss as a colleague, friend and, in some cases, as a mentor.

The Bernstein-Maraniss conversation will be a limited-capacity weeknight session of Idea Fest, new for us, that requires a separate ticket to benefit the independent local journalism of The Capital Times.

The $125 price (discounted for Cap Times members and for those purchasing tables) includes drinks, appetizers and a copy of Bernstein’s latest book, which was quoted above: “Chasing History: A Kid in the Newsroom.” It’s not about Watergate, but about Bernstein’s 15-year apprenticeship in the newspaper business.

The event is at 7 p.m. on Thursday night, Sept. 15, in the Great Hall of the Memorial Union on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, and you can purchase tickets here.

I am biased, of course, but I think this will be one of the most memorable, even historic, conversations we have hosted in what is now our sixth annual thought festival.

For me, that’s in part because Bernstein and reporting partner Bob Woodward (whom Maraniss interviewed for Idea Fest in 2020) inspired a generation of baby boomers to enter journalism after Watergate in the late 1970s. The romance and public service of what they did contributed to a glut of would-be journalists trying to elbow into the profession. Trust me, I recall that part all too well.

Bernstein’s account of big, breaking stories also struck a chord, reminding me of some of Madison’s biggest local stories in recent decades that I was part of as a reporter and editor at the Wisconsin State Journal. One was the tornado that terrorized tiny Barneveld in the overnight hours in June 1984, killing nine; another was a shattering double homicide at the City-County Building by a young man named Aaron Lindh in 1988; and a third the 1993 post-game stampede at Camp Randall Stadium after the Badgers defeated Michigan that injured and nearly killed scores of fans.

Those stories, like Bernstein’s many examples, involved all-hands-on-deck journalistic teams making sense of chaos and providing depth, breadth and context for next-day print newspaper readers before the internet changed the delivery of news.

Bernstein’s book describes his many early-career experiences on stories from the Kennedy administration to the civil rights movement, but he writes most colorfully about a spellbinding array of crimes and accidents and explains how he and more veteran reporters somehow managed to wrangle information.

Woodward, his Watergate-era partner, described Bernstein on the book’s jacket as “one of the great reporters of all time. He taught himself the genius of perpetual engagement that led us to Watergate: watching, looking, questioning and overwhelming the moment. His rules — go anywhere, listen hard, push and push some more — are, to this day, the touchstone of investigative reporting.”

Two months ago, to mark the 50th anniversary of the break-in at Democratic headquarters in the Watergate office building that culminated 26 months later in President Richard Nixon’s resignation, Bernstein and Woodward co-authored an opinion page reflection for the Post comparing the Nixon era to the years of Donald Trump.

“Both Nixon and Trump have been willing prisoners of their compulsions to dominate, and to gain and hold political power through virtually any means,” they wrote. “In leaning so heavily on these dark impulses, they defined two of the most dangerous and troubling eras in American history.

“As (George) Washington warned in his Farewell Address more than 225 years ago, unprincipled leaders could create ‘permanent despotism,’ ‘the ruins of public liberty,’ and ‘riot and insurrection.’ ”

So please join us for an evening with two of the country’s foremost observers and commentators. You will support a good cause, and it will almost certainly be a night you’ll remember.