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Loyalties: A Son's Memoir.

Loyalties: A Son's Memoir Carl Bernstein. Simon & Schuster, $18.95. Carl Bernstein's parents didn't approve when he left The Washington Post 12 years ago to write a book. In addition to garden-variety worries about a son giving up a prestigious and secure job was a more exotic concern: the book's subject was their own membership in the Communist party. AI and Sylvia Bernstein had never been completely forthcoming with Carl (or anyone else) about this aspect of their lives, even though its consequences-summonses before congressional committees, scandalous headlines, ostracism by neighbors-caused the family considerable pain.

Given his parents' continuing reluctance to air their dirty linen, Bernstein had two alternatives once he'd signed his book contract: he could be a good boy or he could write a good book. (A third alternative, not to write the book at all but to undertake a private investigation w satisfy his own legitimate curiosity, seems never to have occurred to him.) Judging from the muddled result, Bernstein, after much agonizing, finally chose to protect his parents and leave his readers out in the cold.

That's not to say that Loyalties lacks revelation. Bernstein writes movingly about growing up subversive: piling into the family car to escape the subpoena-server from the House Committee on Un-American Activities, sobbing hysterically after the Rosenbergs were executed (not so much out of altruism as out of fear that his own parents would meet the same fate). Young children are instinctive reactionaries, and Carl was no exception; he drove his parents crazy by serving as class air-raid warden and brandishing a"I Like Ike" button while his parents wondered whether to compromise and support Adlai Stevenson or back Vincent Hallinan of the Progressive party. AI and Sylvia refused their son's pleadings to join a country club, but after Carl wrote them an ugly note calling them "atheistic Jewish communists" they agreed to throw him a bar mitzvah. While Carl read ftom the Torah, FBI agents stood across the street writing down license numbers.

Bernstein's unresolved feelings about his parents' radicalism probably account for the book's maddening stream-of-consciousness structure, which fuzzes up even the simplest facts. It wasn't untill skimmed the book, after a thorough read, that I understood that Carl had two (I think) younger sisters. Crucial information appears in stray sentences inevitably attached to the wrong paragraphs, while Bemstein pads out the narrative with unilluminating excerpts from FBI files and with transcribed conversations with Bob Woodward and other friends about what he wants to accomplish with this book. (At its worst, Loyalties is a book about writing a book.)

One clear benefit of the chaotic narrative is that it enables Bernstein to cloud the issue he's most squeamish about: what role the Communist party played in his parents' lives.

The basic facts are these: AI, a young idealist and law-school dropout, came to Washington in 1937 to investigate railroad price-Exing for the Senate Commerce Committee. He quickly got involved in organizing for the United Federal Workers of America, a CIO-affiliated public employee union (later known as the Public Workers of America). Union activities drew AI into the world of the Washington Left, where he met and married Sylvia. When AI got a job working for the Office of Price Administration in San Francisco, the couple immersed themselves in west coast labor politics. The union leaders they met there belonged to the Communist party and badgered AI and Sylvia to join too.

This was a time when the alliance between the U.S. and Russia against Hitler had brought nationwide membership in the Communist party to an all-time peak of between 60,000 and 80,000 members. AI and Sylvia joined this tiny tide. According to AI, his membership was "half-assed" and he attended only a dozen meetings. Sylvia says joining was a way to demonstrate commitment to antifascism, the labor movement, and rights for blacks. When the couple returned to Washington, they did drift away from party politics, but Sylvia remained an underground member. Asked why she didn't quit outright, she says, "I would have been disloyal."

In 1947 Harry Truman caved in to political pressure and created loyalty boards allowing federal agencies to purge "subversives" in government. AI worked tirelessly defending union members. Bernstein convincingly portrays these labors as heroic; the loyalty boards were truly appalling. in many cases, the accuser was unknown not only to the accused but also to the boards themselves. The FBI would simply provide its (highly suspect) assurance that its information was reliable. But what if the process hadn't been corrupt? What if offly real communists had been rooted out of government-would the firings then have been just? Purges of communists from government posed a tougher question than, say, purges from Hollywood. A communist screenwriter wasn't in much position to do his nation harm; a communist in government arguably might have been. It's not an issue Bernstein chooses to raise, let alone explore.

Al and Sylvia's own decision to join the Communist party cost them dearly-friends and relatives spumed them, and Al ended up in the laundry business for a time. But for all his investigative skills, Carl Bernstein is never able to tell us much about what it meant for his parents to be communists. Al in particular is exasperating on the subject, tirelessly evading all questions with his insistence that the party wasn't what mattered; the union was. "Once you admit affiliation," he complains, "you get into all that Stalinist crap." Bernstein answers that "Stalinist crap" is "a pretty legitimate subject for inquiry." But if this or any other challenge got him a more thorough answer, Bernstein doesn't share it with his readers. It's hard to see why he would want to. -Timothy Noah
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Author:Noah, Timothy
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1989
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