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The Journalism of David Halberstam

Dispatches from the Front

by ROGER MORRIS

There will be an outpouring of tributes to David Halberstam, the renowned American writer who died at 73 Monday in an automobile accident near San Francisco. But no eulogy can match the sheer memorial of his work. Halberstam was, in every sense, a compleat journalist-truth-teller as artist-and his legacy leaves a lasting chance of redemption for a media whose decay his standard always silhouetted so starkly.

He will not be easy going, of course, for the new virtual readership of the twenty-first century. Halberstam did not write in blog-size sentences, books, histories, ideas. As witness and reporter, he was intent on tapestries, ironies, maddening ambiguities, the irreducible complexities otherwise known as life. His bewitching gift, at necessary length, was to make even that simple–simply fascinating, moving, haunting.

I was in Lyndon Johnson’s White House, not far from some of the men he wrote about, when I first read pages of The Best and the Brightest. His inspiration has since been so powerful, his example so emulated, if never quite equaled, that it seems hard now to recall what a revolution, and revelation, he embodied in writing about power and the powerful.

There is one of those inimitable Halberstam opening scenes. It’s just after the 1960 election and former Secretary of Defense and Undersecretary of State Robert Lovett, foreign policy establishment demigod, has come to John Kennedy’s graceful townhouse on old cobblestone N Street in Georgetown to tell the new President-elect who to put in his administration. The moment on the page reeks of innocence and promise, and unseen portent, as America did, as Halberstam the portraitist and landscape painter as reporter always seemed to capture. Lovett the worldly elder statesman guiding a callow young politician in thrall to his World War II elders, the same at root tragically unworldly Lovett who as a lean magnetic young Wall Street financier in the 1930′s regaled weekend guests at his shady Long Island estate with hilarious mimicry of the world’s funny people, the Russians and Asians and Arabs.

Intelligence and status without sensibility, without authentic knowledge and sophistication, Halberstam shows us again and again, are almost invariably lethal in government as anywhere else. When Bob Lovett is through with Kennedy, we have Dean Rusk and Robert McNamara, a cast of men in similar molds, the Vietnam War, and ultimately the fate of generations. No one had ever told it all so vividly and unmistakably as David Halberstam did-and no one has since.. Knowing some of the men, left with their policy, I sat in the White House reading the pages, too aware of how uniquely real it all was, and wept for my country.

It was hardly the first time Halberstam evoked a cry. He had been a thorn to arrogant, overrated Harvard as student editor of the Crimson in the 1950′s, a fearless chronicler of official racism in southern papers, and then, to the abhorrence of the U.S. Government, the conscience of the New York Times and the nation in his courageous coverage -earning a Pulitzer Price at 30- of the grand and petty folly of the war in Southeast Asia.

He went on after The Best and the Brightest to write twenty-one books on themes as sweeping and penetrating-the media, the auto industry, civil rights, baseball, and not least his 2002 War in a Time of Peace, aptly depicting his nation’s continuing agony.

Through it all, he was the ultimate war correspondent, his dispatches from the front of a civilization reporting America at war with itself, with what it once was, had become, might yet be.

It was somehow fitting that he died while on a trip to lecture journalism students. The young Halberstam who never seemed to have enough time to report his world had aged into his own elder statesman who always found time to pass on his art.

He would be skeptical of the tributes and even iconography that will now surround him, though more in nostalgic spirit than in the practicing letter of a journalism that is losing, has lost, most of the very attributes-knowledge, independence, sensibility-he thought essential to reporters and editors no less than officials.

Even so, after David Halberstam we can never look at ourselves in the same disastrously unconscious way again, never blithely ignore the flesh-and-blood reality of power, never fail to recognize that the starting point of politics and policy, as the Maréchal de Saxe said of war, is the human heart.

It was the unforgettable message of his every dispatch from the front.

ROGER MORRIS, who served in the State Department and on the Senior Staff of the National Security Council under Presidents Johnson and Nixon, resigned in protest at the invasion of Cambodia. He then worked as a legislative advisor in the U.S. Senate and a director of policy studies at the Carnegie Endowment, and writes this Rumsfeldian history from intimate firsthand knowledge as well as extensive research. A Visiting Honors professor at the University of Washington and Research Fellow of the Green Institute, where his work originally appears. He is an award-winning historian and investigative journalist, including a National Book Award Silver Medal winner, and the author of books on Nixon, Kissinger, Haig, and the Clintons. More recently, he co-authored with Sally Denton The Money and the Power, a history of Las Vegas as the paradigm of national corruption. His latest work, Shadows of the Eagle, a history of U.S. covert interventions and policy in the Middle East and South Asia over the past half-century, will be published in early 2008 by Knopf.