By ANIKA SETHY
Carl Bernstein — one of the Washington Post investigative journalists who helped uncover the Watergate scandal — spoke about the importance of the current generation’s engagement with politics at Cornell Wednesday.
Bernstein — who has authored five best-selling books — said one of America’s greatest obstacles today is the partisan and ideological nature of Washington and the media.
“Instead of talking about the economy and families, we’ve been subjected to scorch politics [and accept] myth over fact,” he said. “Now this extends to how we process and receive journalism as citizens.”
He referred to President John F. Kennedy’s famous inauguration speech, in which Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” as an example of a commitment to national interest and the common good.
“The question [Kennedy] asked that day after he had been sworn in as President has a shaming reflection on today’s Washington,” Bernstein said. “He was talking about the national interest; not just self-interest. I say that this sounds almost quaint and disingenuous in the context of today’s political debate.”
Rather, Bernstein said he believes today’s politics are based on “ideological warfare” that considers the common good last. He also said that a “fact-based” approach in politics, civil discourse and media has been lost.
“We learned an approach to our reporting that was simple — and that was to pursue the best obtainable version of the truth,” Bernstein said. “Today I would say that the opposite is too often true.”
Bernstein said a problem that remains in today’s politics is the tendency to refuse the usage of a fact-based approach to political dialogues.
“People are looking for ideological and political ammunition to reinforce what they already believe,” Bernstein said. “Our ideology is not just threatened by terrorism, but … [also] by this breakdown of our system in the country. Our whole political system [has been] broken for three decades or more by this cultural warfare that shows little sign of abating.”
Bernstein also compared the current political breakdown and last year’s government shutdown to that of the McCarthy era and the desegregation debate.
“The leadership of the Republican party saying ‘let’s shut down the government,’ because they extensively oppose the President’s health care plan — is that sufficient reason [to] disagree with the President, to shut down the government and endanger the safety of the U.S.?” he said. “Extremism is not always bad, but this kind of extremism is the agenda of demagogues.”
Despite this, Bernstein said he feels that today’s generation has a desire to engage in politics.
“I’ve spent a lot of [time] talking with people of your generation, and I’ve seen a desire to engage with the political system. … Your generation is different,” he said. “I’m not saying that young people need to be in the streets, but you’re going to find a way [to engage] because you’re practical, you’re smart [and] you know what works and doesn’t work.”
The event was hosted by Cornell Hillel.