April 17, 1989 12:00 PM

by Carl Bernstein

Most historians are orderly creatures. Carl Bernstein is a mess. No sooner does he sit a subject down for interrogation—and that happens a lot in this book about postwar Commie baiting—than he loses patience or interest or his train of thought. More scatterbrained child than absent-minded professor, he seems to shuffle papers and let chapters and conclusions fall where they may. The miracle is that on some level Loyalties works.

Bernstein’s first book since The Final Days with Bob Woodward, it is fueled by the upheaval he endured as a boy. His father, Al, a lawyer working for the United Public Workers of America, defended union members accused of disloyalty during the witch-hunts of postwar Washington; his mother, Sylvia, was committed to the civil rights movement; both Bernsteins had joined the Communist Party in 1942 when, as Sylvia tells her son now, “it was just something you did [if you stood for] antifascism; the labor movement; rights for black people.” Under President Truman’s Executive Order 9835—the Loyalty Order—such affiliations branded a citizen an “enemy of the state.” One of Bernstein’s creepier memories is of visiting the son of Ben Gilbert, then city editor of the Washington Post, on the day Mrs. Bernstein appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee. The next day, Sylvia’s testimony was a Post headline—and the Gilberts never again allowed Carl to play with their children.

Yet, despite the effect their politics had on the household, the Bernsteins adamantly opposed their son’s investigations into their past. The book was written without their consent, and their objections are one of its major themes. So frustrating is their attitude, in fact, that the reader is often tempted to give them a good shake—”Are you now or have you ever been…?” Certainly, though Bernstein offers an often-provocative view of tension-ridden life in a postwar subculture that found itself under siege, his story is both intellectually and emotionally incomplete. “What were your feelings? What were you feeling?” Carl demands of his father late in their cat-and-mouse game. “Well,” answers Dad, “I’m not that way.” (Simon and Schuster, $18.95)

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