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Journalist Halberstam, Chronicler of Vietnam War, Dies at 73

April 24, 2007 at 9:45 AM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: Over a 50-year career, David Halberstam chronicled a broad array of American life, from his early days in newspapers and later in more than 20 books.

Born in New York in 1934, he graduated from Harvard in 1955. He reported on the civil rights movement for the Nashville Tennessean in the late ’50s. In 1962, he went to Vietnam as a correspondent for the New York Times on the assignment which would shape his career, win him a Pulitzer Prize, and later produce one of the seminal books about the war and the men who ran it, “The Best and the Brightest,” published in 1972.

Among his other works: “The Powers That Be,” a portrait of the families that operated major media outlets: “The Fifties,” a study of that decade’s upheaval; “The Summer of ’49,” which recounted an epic pennant race between the Yankees and Red Sox; “Playing for Keeps,” a portrait of Michael Jordan; “The Children,” about the leaders of the civil rights movement; and “Firehouse,” an intimate study of 13 firefighters from a company near his home in New York City, all but one of whom died on 9/11.

His latest book, entitled “The Coldest Winter,” about the Korean War, will be published this fall.

In 2003, Halberstam was interviewed for the documentary “Reporting America at War.” He described the slow realization among reporters in Vietnam that the official accounts and the reality on the ground were entirely different matters.

DAVID HALBERSTAM, Author: When I first went there, I thought we were probably on the right side. It was early on; the American investment wasn’t that big. And the essential legitimacy of the American government and of the American military post-World War II and post-Korea still held, that generals told the truth, that we hadn’t gotten to the word “spin” yet.

By January of ’63, the advisory commitment, the attempt to help a country to save itself, had been in operation for about — I don’t know — six, eight, 10 months. And we kept picking up from our sources that it wasn’t working. Something was wrong.

We were finding out stuff we didn’t want to find out. We were going against our own grain. We wanted Americans to win. We wanted it to work. And then it didn’t work, so we started saying it didn’t work. And that’s when they all started attacking us and just, “These are the guys who want us to lose.”

He had a 'healthy skepticism'

JEFFREY BROWN: David Halberstam was killed in an auto accident yesterday outside San Francisco on his way to conduct an interview. He was 73 years old.

Joining me now is Gay Talese, who first met David Halberstam when they were young reporters at the New York Times. Mr. Talese is himself a best-selling author of many books on a wide range of subjects, including most recently a memoir titled "A Writer's Life."

Well, Mr. Talese, take us back, first, to Vietnam. What was the importance of the reporting that David Halberstam and a handful of others did there?

GAY TALESE, Author: Well, what made Halberstam perhaps the greatest reporter of my generation was that he had a healthy skepticism. He was a man you could not spin. He went, as he himself said earlier on your program in the recorded documentary, that he went over there hoping America would win.

He comes from a family of people who believe in this country. His father was a doctor in the military. And David Halberstam had a belief in the righteousness of the war, but that quickly changed when the facts that he perceived and the facts that were the official view of government clashed.

And Halberstam was one of those who did not tolerate the falsity that was coming from official sources. And he had the fortitude, the drive, the determination to correct the record, to tell the truth as he saw it. And when he saw it, it was true.

He was one of those reporters, unique in our time here, but not so unique in the time when we were all young in the 1950s and '60s, reporters who cared greatly about getting the facts right. He was, moreover, a man who could not only get the facts right, but could write clearly.

He was a storyteller, a great reporter, as I said, yes, but also a man who wrote with great, great style, and he could communicate to a large audience whatever it was he was writing about, whether it was the war or time in peace, whether it was the life of Michael Jordan, whether it was the life of some automaker in his book about Detroit and Japan and the auto clashes of the 1980s.

Historian mindset

JEFFREY BROWN: That range of subjects that he covered that you were just referring to is quite remarkable. There's the very weighty subjects and then what some might think of as less weighty, the sports books. Did he make that distinction in his mind about what he was writing?

GAY TALESE: No, and I do not agree with that determination of the difference. Halberstam could write about what seemed to be less weighty, but he brought to everything he wrote a sense of the historian. He was, among other things, he was a fine writer, a fine reporter, as I already said, but he was a historian.

And if he was writing about, let's say, the firehouse in which 12 out of 13 died, he was really writing about the attacks of 9/11, as seen through the perceptions of and the small building that housed the firemen. So he was writing about something large, but telling the story from a minimum number of characters.

A book you did not mention, called "The Teammates," yes, it was a book about old ball players for the Boston Red Sox, but he was really writing, as he did for everything, he was writing about a section of America. Everything that Halberstam wrote, whether it was the big subjects, as you might put it, or the somewhat slighter subject in terms of scope, it was a fullness of the American experience.

You take all of his books together, they are a great, great, large-scale assemblage of the American experience during his lifetime, which is from the end of World War II, from the 1950s that he chronicled in one of these books you did mention, right through the 21st century.

One of the great regrets of my lifetime, and I think all Americans, was that we didn't have a young Halberstam in covering the White House in the year 2002-2003 to the lead-up to the war and the war. I don't think, if you had a Halberstam in covering the Defense Department, we would have had such a tolerance for deception.

It's a great loss for America that he is no longer on the scene.

Careful reporting

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, I noted that, just before the crash yesterday, he was speaking at U.C. Berkeley on the subject, to a group of journalism students, about journalists becoming historians, the move from the daily to the historian. How did he see himself? Did he see himself as a historian, as a journalist, as some mix of both?

GAY TALESE: No, he saw himself as a mixture of both, in the sense that to be a great historian is to, in his case, to be a great legman, a great reporter.

So many historians are people with academic credentials and who gather their information, perhaps, in the library. Halberstam would do that, but do more than that. He would go to scene. He was a man who, from the beginning of his career, right through the age of 73 when he died, he was a man of action.

He was a very careful reporter. He prided himself on being an historian. He had a great and academic, a great intellectual sense of the democracy that we're a part of, and how it failed, and if it failed, a truth seeker, a person who wanted to set the record straight, and tell it with Halberstam's view and his great talent. A great loss.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Gay Talese on his friend and fellow writer, David Halberstam. Thank you very much for joining us.

GAY TALESE: Thank you so much.