As part of the Presidential Lecture Series presented by Stony Brook President Samuel L. Stanley Jr., Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, author and visiting professor Carl Bernstein offered his insight in a lecture called “Why Isn’t Our Government Working—And Can It?”
Bernstein has reported on the American presidency since President John F. Kennedy was in office. He called this week a “particularly opportune time,” as it has been 50 years since the assassination of JFK, to look back at that era with realism about a political system that was “thoughtfully dealing with the problems and opportunities of America.”
He referenced JFK’s challenge to the American people for “national interest” and “the common good”: Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.
“Times have changed and not necessarily for the better,” Bernstein told the Staller Center for the Arts theatre full of students, school officials and the general public, “but in these days in Washington, almost no one there represents the situation.”
He explained that Washington today is in a “partisan and ideological cocoon” rather than a government focused on problem solving, and looks at fiction rather than fact.
Bernstein explained that as a reporter he learned to search for the “best obtainable version of the truth,” an idea that he carried throughout the Watergate coverage. While writing for the Washington Star and the Washington Post, Bernstein reflected, the truth was to be used by the people to make intelligent decisions about the country, but in this age people are instead increasingly looking to reinforce their partisan ideology.
In terms of the current government, Bernstein believes that “no modern president has faced the kind of sheer obstructionism by the opposition party that Obama has,” yet on the other hand, he feels the president has not handled the blockage skillfully.
Bernstein acknowledged his time so far with Stony Brook students, commenting that he does not think that the government can work until this generation of students begins to undo the problems now faced.
“We’ve failed you, the students here, because what I see throughout the country today amidst young people is justified disgust in our political system and its present incarnation,” he said. He did not ignore that his generation did accomplish “remarkable things,” including creating a meritocracy, social and economic opportunity, civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, the post WWII economic engine, great cities, technology and rock ‘n’ roll.
Bernstein said that this generation of students is left with very little in terms of the opportunities that his generation had, saying that “because unless you are rich, you’re going to have much less in the way of opportunity,” mentioning earlier that the country is on the edge of plutocracy, a government run by the wealthy.
The lecture and questions ended with a standing ovation.