David Halberstam, RIP
April 25, 2007 • These days, reporters regularly gather to bemoan the demise of old journalism and the rise of blogs. Future historians will peg Monday's death of David Halberstam, 73, in a California car crash, as a signpost of the old era's end.
Halberstam was the first big-time journalist with whom I ever had dinner, in 1969 or 1970 when I was a college student. My fellow leftists and I venerated him for winning a Pulitzer Prize on the back of anti-Vietnam War reporting that had gained the ire of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. As William Prochnau, author of "Once Upon a Distant War," later noted, Halberstam in his reporting of those he distrusted ''didn't say, 'You're not telling me the truth.' He said, 'You're lying.'"
We loved that — Halberstam wrote like a god — but four decades later, the epigone of Halberstamism is found in books like Al Franken's "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right." Unlike some of his successors, Halberstam was a hardworking reporter who didn't grab for sneering laughs, but his 1965 book about Vietnam, "The Making of a Quagmire," has inspired journalists for four decades to look for a quagmire as soon as the first American soldiers set foot on sand.
Halberstam's perceptiveness and blindness were both evident in an interview he gave to the San Jose Mercury News in 1993. He said he was worried about journalism's future because "The public perceives us as being too powerful and too arrogant." But he went on to state his version of the problem: "We give a jarring perception of reality to people." Journalists knew reality, and people weren't strong enough to handle the shrink-wrapped truth.
Born in 1934, the son of a surgeon father, Halberstam became managing editor of the Harvard Crimson. He graduated in 1955 and worked on newspapers for 12 years before spending the next 40 on book writing. He penned (taking copious interview notes in longhand) 21 books in all, including "The Best and the Brightest" (1972), which again slammed U.S. efforts in Vietnam, and "The Powers That Be" (1979), which undressed press moguls who tried to keep their publications from veering left.
Books such as "Summer of '49," a story of the pennant battle that year between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, were major commercial successes. He also wrote books about basketball and football, and took his last trip to California largely to give speeches. (If James Earl Jones has the greatest deep voice in America, Halberstam gave him some competition: The New York Times poeticized that he "was graced with an imposing voice so deep that it seemed to begin at his ankles.")
Orville Schell, dean of the University of California, Berkeley's graduate school of journalism, told the Mercury News that Halberstam on his final journey gave "a truly inspired talk here at Berkeley," and afterward stayed late in a restaurant discussing similarities between the Vietnam and Iraq wars. Indicating the veneration that Halberstam received, Schell recalled that "No one wanted to leave. It was kind of like the last supper."
Halberstam was the best and brightest of the old journalistic era, which will not be resurrected. He elegantly wove tales of government and corporate mendacity. He orated brilliantly about oppression. He worked hard, gained disciples and received not only numerous honorary degrees but something more important — articles upon his death with headlines like "Halberstam was my journalistic hero" and "Saying goodbye to a mentor."
According to song, the day Buddy Holly's plane crashed in 1959 was the day the music died. When a car broadsided the one Halberstam was riding in, he died almost instantly as a broken rib punctured his heart. The journalism he was the heart of, one where reporters claimed to possess gnostic wisdom, is also dying. We've entered an era of citizen journalism, where everyone has a camera and YouTube replaces You Believe What I Write.