Glorious Chaos: A Kid in the Newsroom

Posted on January 13, 2022

by Carl Bernstein

The following is an excerpt from Carl Bernstein’s Chasing History, a triumphant memoir recalling his beginnings as an audacious teenage newspaper reporter in the nation’s capital—a winning tale of scrapes, gumshoeing, and American bedlam.

Carl Bernstein
Photo Credit: Jonathan Becker

My becoming a copyboy was really my father’s doing. He rightly feared for my future—a concern that was based on hard facts, most of them having to do with the pool hall, my school report cards, and the Montgomery County Juvenile Court. It was the opinion of experts at all three institutions that the odds were against my ever amounting to much. Selling shoddy merchandise on layaway to poor people from Swampoodle was another reason my father wanted to steer me toward more respectable work.

There had been no father-and-son discussion about my difficulties, unless you counted the time he told me how he had struggled and saved to get through college during the Depression. My father’s eyes had filled with tears as he told the story. It was the only time I ever saw that happen at home, though it was not uncommon for his eyes to glisten when he marched on a picket line. My father was the principal organizer of the United Federal Workers / United Public Workers of America and was regarded as a saint by the people to whom he devoted his life. These were not the circles favored by the Washington Evening Star, the town’s hidebound “conservative” newspaper.

But my father’s preference for the Star—over the far more liberal Washington Post—went deep. In a company town in which the federal government was the company, being the government columnist was a position of importance, and the Star’s Joseph Young had covered a strike by my father’s union with fairness and faithfulness to the facts, whereas the Post’s Jerry Klutz (his actual name) had been more intent on uncovering whether the union’s leaders included members of the American Communist Party and, by inference perhaps, what role Moscow had played in determining whether U.S. government cafeteria workers should get their pay raised to a dollar an hour.

My father became a source for Joe Young. And it was Joe Young who said a word to Rudy Kauffmann and got me a job interview at the Star.

Rudolph Max Kauffmann II was the grandson of the first president of the Evening Star and cousin of the current one. Though his title was production editor, he was sometimes called the Clown Prince, which, later on, I came to think was unfair and more than a little cruel. As a youth, he had wanted to become a geologist, but after four years of Princeton his father had put an end to that dream and ordered him to join the family business. Rudy complied, but his career at the paper was not a glorious one. Basically, he hired the copyboys and, from a fair distance, was responsible for their supervision. His portfolio included the Star’s generous civic and charitable role in programs that served the city’s children and the poor. 

“That’s quite a suit you got yourself, boy.”

Rudy Kauffmann wore half spectacles, and he looked down his nose to see me. He had a friendly face.

I thought I was pretty well turned out, in my cream-colored suit and the pickle-colored tie Louie had selected for me. But Rudy Kauffmann seemed to have his doubts.

“Boy, I thought your dad told Joe Young you were almost finished high school?”

“Sir, I’ll be in twelfth grade this coming year,” I replied. I told him that I’d turned sixteen in February, but he still looked skeptical.

Before taking the elevator to his office on the third floor, I’d lingered in the lobby and studied a mural testifying to the paper’s long witness to history. There were front-page headlines—LINCOLN ASSASSINATED, SENATORS WIN PENNANT, UNITED NATIONS BORN, SURRENDER: JAPS STRIPPED OF CONQUESTS—and pictures of General MacArthur and Charles Lindbergh and presidents, kings, and queens posing with members of the three families who had owned and run the Star almost since its founding in 1852: the Noyeses, the Adamses, and the Kauffmanns. In some of the photos, the owners were standing next to the presses and were wearing funny little hats made out of folded newspaper pages. On an office directory posted in the lobby, the names of the families were all mixed up with one another by the time of Rudy Kauffmann’s generation; there were Noyeses and Kauffmanns listed in almost every department, including some executives with both names.

To catch up with the second half of the twentieth century and get the paper out to the suburbs faster, the Star had moved from downtown to its brand-new building at 225 Virginia Avenue on the edge of Capitol Hill, a state-of-the-art news production facility, all cinder block and concrete except for two floors of picture windows in the front.

“I thought Joe Young said you were in high school,” Rudy Kauffmann said again.

The immediate problem, I gathered, was that I was too short to be a copyboy. Or too young, or too young-looking. Not only was I five foot three (and still growing), I was freckled from head to toe. One summer I’d smeared a whole bar of butter over my face because the man who pumped gas at the Tenleytown Amoco station told me—while I filled up my bicycle tires—that the butter would make my freckles go away.

The bookcase behind Rudy Kauffmann contained what looked like a century’s worth of leather-bound volumes of the Proceedings of the Geological Society of America, and the top of his desk was covered with crystals and other geological specimens. Some were cut open down the middle like cantaloupes, and as he spoke, he ran his fingers along the veins where it looked like the fruit had been scooped out.

“When you’re ready to graduate, come back and we’ll see if there isn’t a part-time job for you here,” he said.

This was a disappointment. I had been assured by Louie that the suit would make me look older. I had also calculated the odds of my graduating from high school, which did not seem good: even if I was on my best behavior, and assuming I took up studying, graduation was almost a year off. And that presumed I could pass chemistry on my second try.

Abruptly, Rudy Kauffmann put down the cantaloupe and started to get up; I became aware of a wizened man who had entered the room, advancing with the aid of a walking stick. His gnarled left hand gripped the head—an ivory animal, a bobcat, it looked like. The man was bent like a parenthesis, with a bald head that shined like the rock that was split open on Rudy Kauffmann’s desk, onto which the ancient fellow now tossed a sheaf of papers.

“Guest list and program—for the Press Club event,” he said.

Rudy Kauffmann looked confused.

“What am I supposed to do with them?”

“Read them! Your uncle told me you should look them over.”

“Why?”

“He expects you to preside at the dinner, Rudolph.”

The old man’s exasperation was palpable. He looked at me for the first time—more at my suit than at me, I thought.

“Joe Young sent him here—knows his father. He wants to be a copyboy. Carl Bernstein.”

Rudy Kauffmann had at least remembered my name.

“Meet Mr. Gould Lincoln, the chief editorial writer of the Star.”

Gould Lincoln definitely belonged to the nineteenth-century side of the newspaper. He nodded at me and said, “I started here as a copyboy, but in those days, we called them office boys. I was fifteen.” He paused. “In 1895.

I took the opportunity to inform the chief editorial writer that I was a year older than he’d been at the start of his newspaper career—adding that I’d taken a journalism class in tenth grade and had brought some clippings from the school newspaper for Mr. Kauffmann to read. In fact, there were just three stories, the total output of what I’d written; I did not mention that I’d been demoted on the paper’s masthead to circulation and exchange manager because of my meager production.

Kauffmann explained that he and Mr. Lincoln had Press Club business to attend to, but he promised to read my clippings and led me to a door at the back of his office.

The door by which I had entered was at the end of a dim, quiet corridor of the sort you would find in any ordinary place of business. The door through which Rudy Kauffmann now led me opened into another universe: People were shouting. Typewriters clattered and chinged. Beneath my feet, I could feel the rumble of the presses.

In my whole life I had never heard such glorious chaos or seen such purposeful commotion as I beheld in that newsroom. By the time I had walked from one end to the other, I knew that I wanted to be a newspaperman.

CHASING HISTORY. Copyright © 2022 by Essential Reporting Enterprises, Inc.

Listen to the introduction of Chasing History below:


Carl Bernstein is the author or coauthor of five bestselling books, most notably All the President’s Men, written with Bob Woodward. He, Woodward, and the Washington Post were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for breaking and investigating the Watergate story, which led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon and set the standard for modern investigative reporting. He is also the author of biographies of Pope John Paul II and Hillary Clinton and a memoir of his family’s experiences during the McCarthy era. He is currently an on-air political analyst for CNN and a contributing editor for Vanity Fair. He lives in New York City.

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