The System Can Work

Jacksonville, Fla. — Legendary journalist Carl Bernstein told an audience of about 700 on Thursday at the University of North Florida that is possible to have a government whose most basic function can work.

Bernstein drew from over 40 years of journalistic experiences, from Watergate to the 21st century, for his hour-long lecture, “The System Can Work: A positive message in a cynical time.”  

He said the Washington, D.C. of today practices the politics of ideology and demagoguery and is unable to solve problems for the good of the country. He blames most of the media for creating manufactured controversies, and many voters for how they process and receive politically-biased news and  information.

In his Oct. 28 eulogy to his former Washington Post editor, Ben Bradlee, at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., Bernstein said what characterized Bradlee was that he wasn’t afraid of the news, of presidents, or of political correctness. 

 Carl Bernstein  before his UNF lecture on Nov. 6. Photograph by Karen Gardner

Carl Bernstein before his UNF lecture on Nov. 6. Photograph by Karen Gardner

“Ben Bradlee … was willing to make mistakes because he believed in this idea of obtaining the best available version of the truth,” said Bernstein.

Bradlee oversaw publication of Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s investigation into illegal activities by the Nixon administration which eventually toppled his presidency.

To reinforce his earlier point that a majority of media no longer sees Bradlee’s truth, Bernstein turned to Les Gelb, who left the New York Times in 1993 to join the Clinton Administration. Bernstein recited excerpts of Gelb’s last column.

“Washington is largely a podium indifferent to the truth. Truth has been reduced to a conflict in press releases and a contest between handlers … truth judged not by evidence, but by theatrical performance.”

Bernstein pivoted to the the government shutdown of 2013. He said it was unheard of that leaders of one political party should endanger the full faith and credit of the U.S. for partisan ideological reasons. Bernstein said nothing like the opposition to the president’s healthcare plan from the Republican “Tea Party” wing had happened since the McCarthy era.  

President Obama, on the other hand, has not taken steps to break gridlock in Washington as he pledged to do while running for office, and has missed opportunities to move the agenda forward. Today, Bernstein said, Washington can’t frame the debate nor agree on a starting place.

He brought the audience through Watergate, from his Washington Post story beginning “John Mitchell, while attorney general, controlled a secret fund” to the Senate Watergate hearings where slowly much of the Nixon criminality became known. Nixon wouldn’t give up the tapes. The case went to the Supreme Court. The congress began impeachment proceedings. 

“The judicial committee passed articles of impeachment because members of the president’s own party said truth is more important than partisanship,” Bernstein said.

That is how the system should work. The last election cycle showed the country senses the basic function of government does not work, but Bernstein is not optimistic that partisanship will disappear by the next election. He looks to this country’s great entrepreneurial spirit and the next generation to rebuild a system that can work.


A bemused Carl Bernstein before his UNF lecture on Nov. 6. Screenshot by Karen Gardner

A bemused Carl Bernstein before his UNF lecture on Nov. 6.
Screenshot by Karen Gardner


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