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