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A subject worthyof his time

Carl Bernstein needed to sort things out before he was ready to write about Hillary Clinton.

June 06, 2007|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — 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.

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