tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Lunch with Mr. Bernstein

I had lunch with Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Carl Bernstein on Friday. He was in town to address a business group and I had the good fortune of sitting at Mr. Bernstein's table, along with 6 other people.

Bernstein said the job of a journalist is to present the "best obtainable version of the truth." With the emphasis currently on celebrity, sensationalism and gossip, he said journalism is falling far short of its responsibility.

He said the press and politics are part of a civic breakdown in this country since Watergate. The press and politics, he said, are supposed to exist for the public good. "We have seen a failure of the system, of incompetence overwhelming competence," he said. "We've had a failure of accountability, and it didn't start with the Bush administration."

He said congress has completely abdicated its responsibility to provide oversight of the presidency. He said the "biggest story of the last 25 years is the wholesale corruption of our Congress and our state legislatures."

He blamed the state legislatures for gerrymandering congressional districts so that most seats are "safe" for one party. He said that in any given election, only about 100 of the 425 House seats are truly competitive.

Bernstein noted that it costs $100 million to run a campaign for senate in a large state such as California, Florida, New York or New Jersey. "That's $50,000 per day," he said. There is a big difference between a fundraiser, which is what a politician needs to be to finance a campaign, and a leader. A fundraiser, Bernstein said, says whatever is necessary to please the group in front of him so that they will be inclined to contribute money. People who are trying to raise money don't take unpopular positions on issues. They can't afford to. Therefore, we end up with a Congress full of people who don't take solid positions on issues, people who don't provide leadership. Bernstein criticized the press for not calling politicians on this deterioration of leadership. Bernstein said public financing of Congressional campaigns would solve this problem.

Bernstein is more philosophically liberal than I am, but I greatly admire his work. He started his career as a reporter at the age of 19 and has covered just about everything in the span of several decades. In addition to breaking the Watergate story in the 1970s and writing All The President's Men, he has written a book on the life of Pope John Paul II, and a book about Hillary Clinton. He has written a memoir and a book about John McCain, in addition to several big time magazine pieces for the likes of Time, Vanity Fair and The New Republic.

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