Tuesday, April 24, 2007

David Halberstam

David Halberstam, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author, was killed in an automobile accident yesterday in Menlo Park, CA. He was 73. Halberstam started out with the New York Times and shared a Pulitzer in 1964 for his reporting on the Vietnam War. In the early 1970s, he published his most famous work, The Best and the Brightest, a masterful account of the Kennedy administration and how it got us into Vietnam, and how the same people continued the war under Lyndon Johnson.

Halberstam in Vietnam.

In addition to his numerous books on politics, the media, war, and other serious themes, he wrote several classics on sports. Yesterday, in fact, he was killed in route to an interview with Hall of Fame quarterback of the New York Giants, Y.A. Tittle. (Halberstam could survive the hellish jungles of Vietnam, but not, evidently, the highways of California.)

I've only read The Best and the Brightest, but it left such an impression on me that I felt the loss this morning when I read the news about his death. It may be the best book I've ever read on how Power really works in our country. And how it can make major mistakes. The Bush administration's current fiasco in Iraq isn't exactly new. The same incredible arrogance, the same disconnect from reality on the ground, the same refusal to listen to those who disagree, all of these traits were equally present among the elites of the Kennedy administration. As well as incompetence - Bay of Pigs, anyone? But Halberstam did an excellent job of painting portraits of the real human beings who were in the administration: Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, George Rusk and many others. The "whiz kids." Grand disasters such as Vietnam, the Holocaust, Hiroshima, etc. often take on an abstract quality over time, and names lose their connection to flesh and blood human beings. Halberstam's book was a reminder that catastrophes and evil are brought about by real people, not abstractions. It was never just "Nazis," but a father of three in Berlin, a church-goer and good neighbor, who processed transport orders. It was never just some faceless Secretary of Defense, but a Boy Scout from San Francisco, a good kid, who ordered massive bombings and the use of chemical weapons (Napalm, vomiting gas) in Vietnam, where millions of people died and the land is still poisoned today. The road to Hell really can be paved with good intentions. I found The Best and the Brightest to be a humbling book - not just revealing the terrible hubris of the Kennedy adminstration, but making me realize that all of us, no matter our intelligence, courage, instincts, or desire to do good, can still screw things up to the point of disaster. The only difference is that my minor, daily disasters usually don't lead to the death of millions of people - one of the benefits of being powerless, I guess.

I also admired Halberstam for being able to move between such heavy topics as the Vietnam war and baseball or basketball. Life is of a whole, and it's nice to know that some writers can capture many of its aspects. It's something I've wanted to do on this blog, but it's not easy. I'll have to pick up one of his sports books and give it a read. I know I can learn something.

So, to one of those who tried to tell the truth in a time of catastrophe, go in grace, Mr. Halberstam.


Jeff said...

Amen, William! I just posted about Halberstam too. The photo you put up is my favorite picture of him, and it seems to sum him up perfectly. It seems so terribly unjust that he should go out in a car accident in his twilight years after having survived all of that.

How we miss the kind of journalist he was in his prime. As we look at Iraq today it saddens me that we didn't learn the lessons about hubris that Halberstam spent so much time trying to teach us. It is now crystal clear that we knew very little about how things actually worked in that country, and this was a failure not only on the part of the administration and congress, but on the journalistic community as a whole. We must also bear responsibility in the public for our inattention.

crystal said...

I hadn't heard of him - I'll have to look for his book.

cowboyangel said...


If you're interested in history and politics andwhat happened in Vietnam, it's well worth reading.

he also has a famous book on the media called The Powers That Be. I may try reading that one.

cowboyangel said...


Have you read anny of Halberstam's books? I'd be curious to hear what you thought.

Jeff said...

Actually, no. I got about halfway through The Best and the Brightest (long book), gave strong skims to The Fifties and his book about Belichik, but I've seen lots of his articles about Viet Nam and other topics, and have seen him many times on television.

Aslo read a lot about him from the likes of Neil Sheehan and Peter Arnett.