One of the Best & Brightest Who Got It Right

In the late 1970s or early 1980s, I heard David Halberstam speak at the Minnesota Press Club in downtown Minneapolis. He spoke about the Middle East, and said he was researching a book about oil. He wanted to tell how America’s dependence on Middle Eastern oil and our inability to conserve was making us contort our foreign policy around our need for energy. This was before the first Gulf War. Before Saudis flew jets into the World Trade Center. Before the disaster a Wyoming and a Texas oil man have created in Iraq.

I was so eager to read that book, but Halberstam never wrote it. And now he never will. He died Monday in a car crash on the way to a college lecture in California. David Halberstam was one of the best journalists in American history, and he made me proud to be a reporter, when I was, and he’s part of why I think journalism is a virtuous profession and central to our freedom.

His work sets a standard not many reach. Are David Halberstam and the brainless crap most journalists cover part of the same world? Yeah, the world of the free press — free to be idiotic, irresponsible, and wickedly accurate. 

Halberstam showed, in The Best and the Brightest, why we can’t just leave it to government to tell us how well things are going. I’ve written elsewhere on this blog that The Best and the Brightest — about U.S. government lies and journalists digging for truth early in the Vietnam War — is essential reading for anyone who…well, for anyone. What if you had a failing war that was ruining our global standing, and the administration running the war called its critics unpatriotic and said reporters just weren’t showing what was working over there? To understand what’s going on in Washington and Iraq today, read The Best and the Brightest.

The title of this, his most famous book, was ironic, and the phrase is still used with unconscious irony to describe a bunch of smart folks. Halberstam’s book recounts John Kennedy assembling the best and brightest minds in the country and still these people, including later under Lyndon Johnson, screwed things up, misunderstanding the Third World, mistaking nationalism for Communism and learning the wrong lessons from history. When the best and the brightest get it wrong, no wonder the political hacks and K Street sluts make such a mess.

Halberstam was distracted from the oil issue by cars. His next book after I heard him was The Reckoning, in 1986. He showed how the Ford Taurus was the only creative thing Detroit had come up with in years, while the Japanese auto industry was taking fuel efficiency seriously and making cars that fit the new world, not the old world of the 1950s. Detroit withered, Japan prospered, and, long before Tom Friedman, there was Halberstam making the global marketplace clear and understandable.

This man didn’t sit on his ass. He won a Pulitzer in 1964 for his reporting from Vietnam — when he would hitch rides with grunt soldiers to get out in the countryside to see the real war while most other reporters took in the official military briefings back in Saigon. Look how many reporters now just sit around and repeat what official sources tell them. Journalism? That ain’t journalism.

William Faulkner said “The past isn’t prologue; it isn’t even past.” Halberstam understood that the past isn’t dead history — it’s part of how things continue to unfold today. Want to understand GenXers’ desire for meaning in their work and lives? Read The Children, Halberstam’s recent book about young people who drove the day-to-day, slow-but-steady progress of the Civil Rights Movement, where a young Halberstam did some of his early reporting.

I loved reading David Halberstam, and listening to him comment on current events. He was insightful, smart, amused and amusing. He’d always look below the surface, and always find a story about human lives that illustrated what was really going on.

We’ll hear his voice one more time this fall, when a new book comes out, about the Korean War. I know it will shed light on today, and I’ll be grateful for the chance to hear, once more, from this bright man.

“For all of the difficulties, I am somewhat optimistic about the future,” Halberstam said. “In my lifetime I have seen the resiliency of American democracy…What I’ve come to admire is the muscularity and flexibility of this society. What I trust is its common sense.”

– Bruce Benidt

10 thoughts on “One of the Best & Brightest Who Got It Right

  1. Dave Jackson says:

    I’m just sick about the news of Halberstam’s death. He’s the most engaging writer I’ve ever read. Whether his book was 200 pages or 800 pages, regardless of the topic, he locked me in. And of course, being the sports nut that I am, I loved his books on baseball and basketball, and I was excited for his future book — the one that will never be written — on the 1958 NFL Championship game. (Quick correction, Bruce: Halberstam was on his way to interview Y.A. Tittle for that book when he was killed. He had lectured at Berkeley over the weekend.)

    The first word I thought of when I heard about his death was “untimely.” It’s a trite word often used to describe those who are snatched from us suddenly while in the course of seemingly ordinary circumstances. But the more I thought about it, the more it fit. How could it ever be timely for someone so prolific to leave us? He had such a thirst for truth, and for sharing his learnings, that I wished he could write forever.

    Halberstam described “The Best and the Brightest” as the book that “burned in his belly.” The more he engaged the material, the more engrossed he became, the more angles became apparent, the more he knew this was the story he must tell. I hope many more journalists and writers find these kinds of stories burning in their bellies, and that they share them as articulately and earnestly as Halberstam did.

    God bless him.


  2. Bob Meekin says:

    Wow! This is tough news. My favorite writer. I have a section on my shelf dedicated to Halberstam books only.

    I heard a guy on the radio say today, “I don’t know who he is, I guess he was a writer”.

    My god, what a significant miss in this persons life. Go to a book store, read a review, buy a book or something.

    He was the best!! Nice tributes. RTM

  3. John Reinan says:

    Here’s an excerpt from Glenn Greenwald today in Salon. He quotes Halberstam recounting a time when the generals tried to intimidate the aggressive reporters at a briefing in Vietnam:

    “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. Period.

    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. “”

    Then Greenwald compares this profile in courage to our modern reporters:

    Elizabeth Bumiller of The New York Times, on the press’ coverage of President George W. Bush prior to the invasion of Iraq:

    “I think we were very deferential, because in the East Room press conference, it’s live. It’s very intense. It’s frightening to stand up there. I mean, think about it. You are standing up on prime time live television, asking the president of the United States a question when the country is about to go to war. There was a very serious, somber tone that evening, and I think it made — and you know, nobody wanted to get into an argument with the president at this very serious time.”

    Pretty much sums it up.

  4. Profiles in courage, from that Salon excerpt. Who’s pushing the military and the government today the way Halberstam and Sheehan and Browne did in VietNam? Seymour Hersh is the only one taking names and kicking ass. We have an administration whose only competence is in misinformation and Jon Stewart is the only journalist playing the tape and quoting the record to show the lies.

    And didn’t you love Halberstam’s voice? Kind of a gentle growl, said through a wry smile.

    Fun to read your three responses here. This electronic community deal really is true — makes me feel better reading what y’all have written.

  5. Dave Jackson says:

    In the journalism world today, it’s about getting the story, which is a very different thing than getting the truth. It’s easy to get stories — just show up at a press conference and write what people say. And that gives you a one-minute segment on the news or 20 column inches in the paper. Other than that, it accomplishes nothing.

    Halberstam was about finding the truth, and that meant going beyond the party line (he called the press briefings in Vietnam the Five O’Clock Follies) and hitching rides to the front line.

    And when he found the truth, he found great stories as well.

    One other recollection I had of his work: When Katharine Graham passed away, the Post Web site invited him for a live chat. Halberstam profiled Graham extensively in The Powers That Be. So he was taking questions from cyberspace and penning multi-paragraph answers on the fly, combined with insight and great anecdotes. I’m sure he had a fine memory and an abundance of material, but what amazed me was his ability to synthesize his thoughts within the time frame of that medium. It was a little bit disheartening to me — I was thinking this guy could pull writing out of his ass that I would need to rewrite multiple times.


  6. John Reinan says:

    As A.J. Liebling said: I’m better than anybody faster than me, and faster than anybody better than me.

  7. jloveland says:

    Oh come on, there are plenty of journalists left to write objective truth-seeking tomes — Kitty Kelley, James Carville, Ann Coulter, etc.

  8. John Gaterud says:

    Mark Danner, long-time staff writer for The New Yorker and New York Review of Books, UC-Berkeley J-school prof, and author of “The Massacre at El Mozote” and “Torture and Truth,” spoke yesterday at MSU/Mankato about the war — including policy and the press. Title of his speech, “The Making of a Quagmire: Iraq and the War on Terror,” contained eerie echoes of Halberstam’s Vietnam book of same title (1964), which predates by nearly a decade “Best & Brightest.” Danner, who has traveled frequently to Iraq in past four years, offered a brilliant (and wrenching) analysis of this quagmire, including mistakes (in his view) based on flawed policies, perceptions and agendas of neo-cons and others. Of course our own capacity for collective self-delusion and amnesia, as Moyers always likes to point out, is limitless, and Danner left few folks on any side of “the question” untouched. Was great stuff — and a pleasant reminder that whatever shortcomings campus life contains (complete with all its bureaucracy and petty politics), they are occasionally forgotten when smart people from afar come to town every so often.

    Yet the uncanny moment came in the run-up to Danner’s visit, when it turns out he and Halberstam had dinner together in Berkeley last Saturday. Mark talked a length yesterday about H’s work, including his influence on and friendship to young reporters, and lamented that he’d failed to mention as they parted he was going to Minnesota this week to give a speech titled “Quagmire.” Odd convergence, indeed — yet beautiful, too, as Danner’s presentation was at once treatise, tribute, echo, elegy.

    One more harmonic: Myra MacPherson’s new 500-page bio, “All Governments Lie: The Life and Times of Rebel Journalist I.F. Stone,” concludes with an account of a visit to the Berkeley J-school, where in North Gate Hall “locked in glass case, like some relic from an ancient Egyptian tomb, is Stone’s battered black, upright typewriter, along with letters from Eleanor Roosevelt and Albert Einstein. Orville Schell, the Chinese scholar and dean of the graduate school, hopes that some students who pass by will be intrigued enough to learn about I.F. Stone and what he did. As long as there are deans like Orville Schell and modern-day visiting journalists like Mark Danner of the NYRoB, at least some young students will know what real reporting is all about.”

    Halberstam stood there last Saturday with Danner, who stood here last night with some of my students. Izzy smiled down from above.

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