The Passing of a Giant
'If you get information that is going to jar the government of the United States and jar the people of the United States, that's what you get paid for. Don't expect to be popular. The better you do the job, the more likely you are to go against conventional wisdom, and people don't like to hear bad news. So you are not going to be popular.'
That quote contained just about everything that's important in understanding why David Halberstam loomed so large in journalism, history and nonfiction books. And of course the photo above speaks to his astounding diligence, over many decades, in assembling the raw materials of his storytelling and then telling it straight.
He was of course most famous for his book about the delusions of powerful men during the Vietnam era, The Best and the Brightest. It was almost Shakespearean in the way it narrated the story of how political hubris overwhelmed policymakers. But I always thought two of his other books were even more impressive, if that was possible. The Powers That Be, published in 1979, basically invented serious media criticism with its probing, analytical look at a handful of powerful media organizations, including CBS and the Washington Post. One mark of its enduring brilliance is how often it's referred to even to this day when those subjects are mentioned. In 1986, he followed up with The Reckoning, a book about the failures of the American automakers to keep up with Japanese rivals. But the book is about so much more: about the struggles of the manufacturing industry, the challenges of the American Rust Belt and more. Once again, he wrote a book that was to be referred to time and time again when the subject came up.
Halberstam's legend was first ignited by none other than President Kennedy. Furious over the Timesman's refusal to take the administration's positive Vietnam war spin at face value, JFK tried to get him removed from the beat. To Publisher Arthur Sulzberger's everlasting credit, he wasn't. Interestingly, Kennedy, a lifelong journalism groupie, became all the more interested in what Halberstam thought about how the war was proceeding. He might have publicly acted like any president, reflexively trying to squelch dissent, but privately he knew and valued truthful reporting when he saw it, and he was impressed with Halberstam's courage in resisting pressure.
Yet another important but lesser-known side of this great man surfaced a few years ago when former Harper's Magazine editor Willie Morris published his excellent memoir, New York Days. Halberstam was a staff writer there in the late '60s, after leaving the Times, and Morris painted a picture of his star writer as a passionate workhorse, given to constant vigilance in resisting pressure to cut corners on great journalism. Halberstam eventually quit the magazine in sympathy with his editor and friend after Morris was pushed out by management.
Like all living icons, he was an appealing mix of seemingly opposite impulses. As a professional, he was the embodiment of the hyperserious journalist and historian, and yet he met his second wife through none other than the infamous Hunter Thompson. And the circumstances of his passing weren't without their internal ironies. Twenty-one years ago he wrote a book--the aforementioned The Reckoning--that explained the structural reasons why Japanese automakers were bound to pass their American counterparts. And on the very week when that came to pass--Toyota passed General Motors as the largest-selling automaker in the world--David Halberstam happened to die as a passenger in a Toyota.
In an appreciation
published today, the Washington Post'
s Henry Allen put his finger on what was perhaps his most impressive quality: his "schoolboy earnestness" even after he had achieved great fame. It kept him working hard, and most importantly of all, it kept him centered, retaining just enough of an outsider's perspective to avoid the self-regard and sanctimony that tends to befall most celebrity journalists. To say that he'll be greatly missed doesn't begin to explain it.