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April 27, 2007

Remembering David Halberstam
By Bill Moyers


Along with so many colleagues I was saddened this week by the death of David Halberstam. Forty years ago, he covered the war in Vietnam while I was part of the government waging it. He got it right; we didn't. The best and the brightest, about whom he wrote a defining book, were sure of their arguments. Halberstam was sure of his senses: he felt, saw, touched, and breathed the war he was covering. Washington spoke of falling dominos, containing communism, and winning hearts and minds. He wrote of broken bodies, frightened and lonesome soldiers; of frustration and futility. For reporting what he saw, his patriotism was impugned. Presidents tried to get him fired from his job, a foolish notion, because for David Halberstam journalism was a calling, not a job. You couldn't fire him and he wouldn't quit.

We got to know each other after I moved to New York in the late 60s. We were born just two months apart in the same year, and were both southerners, so we talked about how our country had been torn apart because the truth of slavery had been driven from the classroom, the pulpit, and the newsroom. We talked about how officials and journalists live in parallel but separate realities; they see and talk to each other, may have a meal and gossip together, but their worlds never touch, because officials use words that don't mean what they say, while for those reporters in Vietnam - Halberstam, Peter Arnett, Morley Safer, and others - words were vessels of reality. More than anyone else, he helped me to see that the further you get from power, the closer you come to the truth. So the sadness one feels is personal, at the loss of a friend and mentor. But let the grief be public, because even if you didn't know him, the death of so honest and courageous a reporter leaves America a little more vulnerable.

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