Dispatches from the Front
In Memory of David Halberstam -- Witness, Journalist, Historian
By Roger Morris
April 24, 2007
April 24, 2007
There will be an outpouring of tributes to David Halberstam, the renowned American writer who died at 73 Monday in an automobile accident near San Francisco. But no eulogy can match the sheer memorial of his work. Halberstam was, in every sense, a complete journalist -- truth-teller as artist -- and his legacy leaves a lasting chance of redemption for a media whose decay his standard always silhouetted so starkly.
He will not be easy going, of course, for the new virtual readership of the twenty-first century. Halberstam did not write in blog-size sentences, books, histories, ideas. As witness and reporter, he was intent on tapestries, ironies, maddening ambiguities, the irreducible complexities otherwise known as life. His bewitching gift, at necessary length, was to make even that simple -- simply fascinating, moving, haunting.
I was in Lyndon Johnson’s White House, not far from some of the men he wrote about, when I first read pages of The Best and the Brightest. His inspiration has since been so powerful, his example so emulated, if never quite equaled, that it seems hard now to recall what a revolution, and revelation, he embodied in writing about power and the powerful.
There is one of those inimitable Halberstam opening scenes. It’s just after the 1960 election and former Secretary of Defense and Undersecretary of State Robert Lovett, foreign policy establishment demigod, has come to John Kennedy’s graceful townhouse on old cobblestone N Street in
financier in the 1930's regaled weekend guests at his shady
Intelligence and status without sensibility, without authentic knowledge and sophistication, Halberstam shows us again and again, are almost invariably lethal in government as anywhere else. Bob Lovett is through with Kennedy, we have Dean Rusk and Robert McNamara, a cast of men in similar molds, the Vietnam War, and ultimately the fate of generations. No one had ever told it all so vividly and unmistakably as David Halberstam did -- and no one has since. Knowing some of the men, left with their policy, I sat in the White House reading the pages, too aware of how uniquely real it all was, and wept for my country.
It was hardly the first time Halberstam evoked a cry. He had been a thorn to arrogant, overrated Harvard as student editor of the Crimson in the 1950's, a fearless chronicler of official racism in southern papers, and then, to the abhorrence of the U.S. Government, the conscience of the New York Times and the nation in his courageous coverage -- earning a Pulitzer Prize at 30 -- of the grand and petty folly of the war in
He went on after The Best and the Brightest to write twenty-one books on themes as sweeping and penetrating -- the media, the auto industry, civil rights, baseball, and not least his 2002 War in a Time of Peace, aptly depicting his nation’s continuing agony.
Through it all, he was the ultimate war correspondent, his dispatches from the front of a civilization reporting
It was somehow fitting that he died while on a trip to lecture journalism students. The young Halberstam who never seemed to have enough time to report his world had aged into his own elder statesman who always found time to pass on his art.
He had incomparable lore and trade craft to give the young. But nothing he said could be more important than the gritty example of his rigor and utter seriousness, the sheer intellectual respect he had for a profession of journalism that has so abandoned intellect. He understood above all the defining distinction in journalism between technique and art, method and substance. Drenching himself in the subject of his next article, book, interview, he knew not only what questions to ask, but how to judge the answers in every dimension. He knew that authentic journalism can make no compromise with knowledge. He gave an interview not long before his death in which he said he was honored to be considered "a historian" when he had thought of himself as "only a journalist." David Halberstam's example as journalist did honor to every pursuit of the mind.
He would be skeptical of the tributes and even iconography that will now surround him, though more in nostalgic spirit than in the practicing letter of a journalism that is losing, has lost, most of the very attributes -- knowledge, independence, sensibility -- he thought essential to reporters and editors no less than officials.
"There are a few things I would like to pass on to you as I come near to the end of my career..."
Halberstam's words to the
"One of the things I learned, the easiest of lessons, was that the better you do your job, often going against conventional mores, the less popular you are likely to be. (So, if you seek popularity, this is probably not the profession for you.) ...
One: It's not about fame. By and large, the more famous you are, the less of a journalist you are. Besides, fame does not last. At its best, it is about being paid to learn. For fifty years, I have been paid to go out and ask questions. What a great privilege to be a free reporter in a free society, to be someone whose job is a search for knowledge. What a rare chance to grow as a person …
I want to leave you today with one bit of advice: never, never, never, let them intimidate you. People are always going to try in all kinds of ways. Sheriffs, generals, presidents of universities, presidents of countries, secretaries of defense. Don't let them do it....
Probably the moment I am proudest of in my career is this: By the fall of 1963, I was one of a small group of reporters in Saigon -- we had enraged
On day that fall, there was a major battle in the Delta (the Americans were not yet in a full combat role; they were in an advising and support role). MACV -- the American military command -- tried to keep out all reporters so they could control the information. Neil and I spent the day pushing hard to get there -- calling everyone, including Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge and General Paul Harkins.
With no luck, of course.
In those days, the military had a daily late afternoon briefing given by a major or a Captain, called the Five O'clock Follies, because of the generally low value of the information.
On this particular day, the briefing was different, given not by a Major but by a Major General, Dick Stilwell, the smoothest young general in
General Stilwell tried to take the intimidation a step further. He began by saying that Neil and I had bothered General Harkins and Ambassador Lodge and other VIPs, and we were not to do it again.
And I stood up, my heart beating wildly -- and told him that we were not his corporals or privates, that we worked for The New York Times and UP and AP and Newsweek, not for the Department of Defense.
I said that we knew that 30 American helicopters and perhaps 150 American soldiers had gone into battle, and the American people had a right to know what happened. I went on to say that we would continue to press to go on missions and call Ambassador Lodge and General Harkins, but he could, if he chose, write to our editors telling them that we were being too aggressive, and were pushing much too hard to go into battle. That was certainly his right.
So: If someone tries, do me a favor and work just a little harder on your story. Do two or three more interviews. Make your story a little better."