LOYALTIES: A SON’S MEMOIR By Carl Bernstein (General, 262pages, $26.95)
Near the end of his long-awaited memoir of his parents, Carl Bernstein makes a wry confession. He describes his account of growing up with a left-wing family in the rabidly right-wing Washington of the 1950s as “a book about laundry.” The remark is intended as a whimsical aside, an allusion to his father’s trade. It is, as well, a wisecrack in keeping with the author’s reputation as the irreverent half of the famous Watergate duo, including Bob Woodward, that won the Pulitzer Prize for stories that helped to drive President Richard Nixon from office in 1974. Unfortunately, the reference is also an accurate summary of Bernstein’s new book. In Loyalties: A Son ’s Memoir, he hangs out the family laundry. And the sight of so much soiled Bernstein linen, while fascinating, is not always edifying.
The author’s professed intentions are laud-
able enough. Bernstein set out to rehabilitate the reputation of his parents, a pair of young Jewish radicals who fell afoul of the antileftist fever that swept Washington after the Second World War. Alfred Bernstein was a Columbiatrained New York lawyer who travelled to Washington as a Roosevelt New Dealer and played a prominent role in the leftist United Public Workers of America trade union, eventually defending about 500 union members against government charges of disloyalty. Sylvia Bernstein, a Washington native, was active in such causes as the movement for racial desegregation in the U.S. capital and the campaign to save Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the New York couple convicted of espionage—and eventually executed—in connection with transmitting nuclear secrets to the Soviets.
Both of Bernstein’s parents also briefly belonged to the U.S. Communist party, an action for which they would ultimately pay a heavy price. Bernstein’s father was hounded from government into the laundry business. He appeared five times before congressional com-
mittees, invoking the Fifth Amendment—protection against self-incrimination—when asked about his membership in the party. Bernstein’s mother did the same in front of the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee. They were ostracized by neighbors, friends and family. They were harassed by J. Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation, even to the point that young Carl’s bar mitzvah was placed under surveillance. The FBI watched the Bernsteins for 30 years, accumulating 2,500 pages of files on the family.
Many of those files appear in the younger Bernstein’s memoir, thanks to the freedom-ofinformation law that was so conspicuously absent during the troubled period of his parents’ lives. It is a time that Bernstein portrays with honesty and skill. He manages to capture the confusion and anxieties of growing up in a household dominated by leftist politics during a period of national paranoia. Often the effect is moving, as when he describes the pain and humiliation that black children suffered during desegregation demonstrations simply because they were not allowed to use whites-only toilets. “I think one of the reasons I hated going downtown,” he writes, “was the knowledge that my friends were going to pee in their pants. There seemed to me two cruelties: the indignity of segregation, and the shame our demonstrations inflicted on my friends.”
Bernstein is also eloquent in transmitting his own deep fears, especially when he recalls the Rosenberg executions: “The Rosenbergs too were progressive people—and they were going to die for it; they were going to fry.”
When they went to the electric chair in 1953, he writes: “I shook and cried uncontrollably that night, can still summon the terror—and the fury at my mother for risking her life, the utter despair.”
Clearly, those events had a profound effect on Bernstein. It may be part of the reason why it has taken him 11 years to write his slim memoir. It may also lie at the root of what is wrong with the book.
At one point, Bernstein describes an episode that took place while playing miniature golf: “My father was bending over to putt through the windmill when I got this pretty good notion to take a whack at his head with a golf club. It is the only time in my life I consciously remember feeling like that. My sister Laura had just been born. Probably it was Oedipal nonsense. But in my family ^ f * Marx and Freud get very confused.”
As that passage indicates, the memoir’s main problem is that while Bernstein is certain that his parents were never disloyal Americans, he does not seem to have sorted out his own feelings about them—particularly his father. He cannot decide whether to be proud of them for being “progressive people,” as he originally intended to title the book, or blame them for joining the Communist party and making his childhood difficult.
Bernstein complicates the book further by
engaging in a little potted history, although he takes pains to stress that what he is writing is personal. He seems to be unaware that his parents joined the Communist party at a time,
his son: “That is the decent thing to do. 5 You didn’t afford your mother and me
1942, when membership was not only legal but in some circles even fashionable. He also appears to have just discovered the significance of President Harry Truman’s notorious 1947 loyalty order, when in fact it has long been established as one of the prime factors behind the rise of McCarthyism, the 1950s witch-hunt named for Senator Joseph McCarthy’s investigations.
And by having undertaken a book that his parents did not want written in the first place, Bernstein has put himself at odds with the people whose honor he sought to restore. “I have a comfortable life right now,” his mother pleads with him at one point. “I finally have a kind of anonymity, plus wonderful children. I don’t want to go through it again.” His father is even more adamant. Noting that family friend Jessica Mitford had identified Communist party members by name in her book on that era only when a member specifically authorized
her to do so, the senior Bernstein tells
|Ä§ that decency.” Carl Bernstein is honest enough to acknowledge that but, in the end, put his own needs ahead of his parents’ concerns. Unfortunately, with Loyalties, he fails to prove that the sacrifice was worth it.
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