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David Halberstam: One of the Best, One of the Brightest

By David Shribman

David Halberstam once was fired by the smallest daily newspaper in Mississippi -- not only fired, but told to leave right away so that he, at age 21, might not contaminate his successor. The president of the United States once asked one of Halberstam's later bosses -- the publisher of The New York Times -- to remove him from Vietnam, so toxic to the Kennedy administration's war strategy was his coverage. Halberstam once told graduating students not to go to law school if their interests were elsewhere, counseling them that they would never get around to serving their passions if they only served their paymasters.

Mr. Halberstam, who died in an automobile crash Monday at age 73, was a creature of the American establishment (Harvard, The New York Times, E.B. White's Manhattan apartment) at the height of American power, influence and wealth. Indeed, it is impossible to conjure David Halberstam anyplace else than in post-World War II America, with its nuclear weapons and neuroses, mass communications and mass culture. Had he been born in Bulgaria a century ago, his name may never have been known outside his family or village.

Mr. Halberstam himself had power, influence and wealth. But he used them in the service of his twin passions: to understand the world he inhabited and to tell the truth about the world he saw. At a time when journalism is losing so much of its soul, it was a twin tragedy to lose one of its greatest avatars.

Mr. Halberstam loved a good story. He loved politics, he loved searching beneath the surface, he loved sports. He loved long sentences, sentences so long that they doubled back on themselves and defied the steely logic that Mr. Halberstam applied to the rest of his work.

He understood the country and culture and was misunderstood by them. To this day many people swear Mr. Halberstam was one of the founding fathers of the anti-war movement in the Vietnam years, and they celebrate or revile him for that. In truth, his early opposition to John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson's war efforts wasn't because he thought the war was wrong but because he thought the war wasn't being fought in a way that would lead to victory.

Bill Prochnau, who wrote a landmark history of the early journalism of the Vietnam era, captured the Halberstam view: "(If) Vietnam couldn't defend itself against the advance of the Communists, then his powerful country not only should help but had a moral duty to do so."

His interests were as wide as his books, which sometimes yawned beyond 700 pages. He wrote about Vietnam, of course, but also about the big news organizations of America; about the Yankees and the Red Sox; about the 1950s and the year 1964; about pro basketball and, in his last work, about the greatest game in pro football, the 1958 playoff between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants. His choice of topics seemed to be symbolic -- the big subjects, the big passions, in American life. Thus books on Michael Jordan, Bill Belichick and the auto industry.

His greatest achievement was to lend to the English language and the American (guilty) conscience one of the most powerful phrases of the 20th century, the title of his fifth book, "The Best and the Brightest." This was a morality tale, a cautionary tale and a tragic tale all in one, as it was the story about how the most righteous and best-educated people in America got wrong the biggest moral and geopolitical issue of their time, the Vietnam War.

Speaking of the best and the brightest, he wrote: "So they had lost it all. There was a sense of irony here, as if each player had lost, not just a major part of his personal reputation, but much of what he had truly believed and wanted, much of what he had manipulated for in the first place."

He used his baroque writing style, one part reportage, one part stream-of-consciousness, to capture the figures who held America in their thrall, or who simply, in the case of mid-century House Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas, held immense power in their hands. Here is Halberstam on Rayburn, a giant of his time now half-forgotten in a world he would never have recognized:

"He seemed in a somewhat grumpy and sour mood in the car, but that was not surprising, he had been that way on and off for several weeks. He was still bothered by the forthcoming election campaign. Everyone knew he hated Nixon, he had never made any secret of that. Rayburn was a man of the party and of old-fashioned loyalties, and he believed that Nixon had slandered the Democratic Party and some of his friends. But Rayburn was still wary of Kennedy, he had not completely accepted him as a man of presidential stature. Kennedy represented much of what he was coming to distrust in politics."

That excerpt is from his giant book, "The Powers That Be," another phrase with resonance for the Halberstam age. But consider for a moment something he wrote this very year for a book almost no one will read. It is the foreword to "Finding the Words," which is the childhood memoir of the late president of Dartmouth College, James O. Freedman. It appears in a volume published by Princeton University Press, not one of the great pop-culture houses, and the shame of it is that the memoir, set in the darkest corners of Manchester, N.H., and written by a man I admired as one of my own greatest mentors, may be the saddest, most powerful and most ignored American memoir of our time.

This is what Halberstam wrote: "I have a sense of Jim that he was from the start much stronger than he ever understood, that he had taken strength in that sad little home far beyond what he realized (for the uses of adversity are never to be underestimated), that his father, for all his modesty, was a more important man and a better role model than Jim had understood when he was younger: The senior Freedman had lived a moral life based on serious principles -- respect for others, giving back to a community more than you take out -- and he had understood the quiet pleasure of being an important, if easy to overlook, part of a community, where he, at least, had understood the value of his own life and his own calling."

Halberstam's searching, questioning manner makes you cringe in sympathy for the poor teacher who had him and Ralph Nader in the same elementary-school class in Winsted, Conn. But he became one of the poets laureate of Pax Americana. Let us say, too, and without irony: one of the best and the brightest.

Copyright 2007 The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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