Anybody who played schoolboy sandlot baseball in Winsted, Connecticut with David Halberstam back in the nineteen forties would not have been very surprised to observe his spectacular journalistic career that took him to the civil rights struggles in the South, the war torn African and Asian continents, and the writing of some 20 books which required aggressive reporting.
Young David ran and played the bases with a ferocious enthusiasm. Even then I recall noticing that he loved to skewer any boy whose boasting was not up to his playing performance. Over half a century many powerful people learned about that trait of David’s firsthand.
After graduating Harvard where he was managing editor of The Crimson, the student newspaper, David was a relentlessly truth telling star reporter for the New York Times in the Congo and Vietnam. So much so that President John F. Kennedy urged the Times’ Publisher to reassign him from Vietnam where his reports on official cover-ups and lying regarding the state of the war there were infuriating the Generals and their visiting politicians.
The Publisher said no way and David won the Pulitzer Prize for his intrepid and accurate reporting in Vietnam.
As impressive as the span covered by his articles and best-selling books were-two volumes on the Vietnam War, books on civil rights, the auto industry, the mass media, sports and a forthcoming book on the lessons of the Korean War, it was his legwork and moral and physical courage that marked him, in ABC TV’s Jim Wooten’s words, “as the best reporter in the past 50 years.”
Fellow reporter Gay Talese said “there wasn’t a lazy bone in his body.” Decade after decade, Halberstam was writing from primary sources–his deep interviews, his acute observations, his determination to always go where the action was occurring.
To seek the facts, the truth of murky, tense situations, he took on the Army, the White House, his newspaper, the New York Times, or anyone who displayed breaches of trust, secrecy or cover-ups denying the public’s right to know.
Jim Wooten put it this way: “There was no one in power that David either respected so much that he would give them a pass, or loathed so much that he would not be fair.”
Few, very few journalists were willing to report truth to power. He broke ground for his profession which had more than its share of lazy, smug, embedded minds who got along by getting along with the influentials they were supposed to cover fearlessly.
Whenever Halberstam spoke at journalism schools the students were spellbound by what he said and what he did in his years on the road.
Jon Meacham wrote in Newsweek that down the decades, Halberstam “was always present at the creation, reporting, watching, thinking and writing about the unfolding drama. Halberstam insisted on reporting what he saw happening, not what the government said was happening. The difference was essential, even epochal, and Halberstam achieved something few journalists do. He changed history, for he helped change how America saw not only the war in Vietnam but the ways of Washington.”
America needed Halberstam’s talents on the Iraq war-quagmire. He called the invasion a massive slam against a giant beehive. I scarcely recall seeing him speak, even on fast moving television programs, without providing some historical context for his comments.
“Why do things happen? Why do they not happen? What are the forces at play?” Halberstam once said as his way of explaining why he left daily journalism and wrote historical books packed with fresh “anecdotes and stories and insights.”
On Monday, April 23, 2007, this great man, this analytic humanitarian, was in the front passenger seat, belted, of a ten year old Toyota driven by a journalism student at the University of California-Berkeley. The intersection was known not to be a safe one. The student took a left turn and another vehicle broadsided the Toyota on David’s side, crushing the metal two feet into the passenger space.
The survivor of reporting fifty military missions in Vietnam and scores of other perils around the world lost his life on a highway in Menlo Park, California. Having spoken to the journalism students, he was on his way to another interview for a book he was writing. His legendary work ethic in action.
At 4pm on June 12, 2007, there will be a memorial service at the historic Riverside Church on Riverside Drive in New York City, not far from where he lived with his wife Jean. Present will be his working colleagues, editors and friends remarking about David’s extraordinary, pioneering life.
There will be anecdotes and recollections of light moments. In today’s times, memorial services usually veer from presentations which induce weeping. That would suit David fine.
But from this occasion, no doubt attended by many persons of renown, accomplishment and some considerable wealth, David deserves a legacy that befits his high standards. But how, where, when?
Why not establish a Camp Halberstam, in his beloved Litchfield Hills of northwest Connecticut, devoted to training fifty students each summer who are seriously bent on a career in journalism. David’s many friends, colleagues and admirers could take turns volunteering their time and talent to teach and work with these youngsters in what he called “the craft that keeps learning.”
The outdoor life would provide some rugged experience that came naturally to David’s physical stamina which was so integral to his mental rigor and persistent travels.
I would like to hear from interested parties, including foundations and people of means, who would like to create this dynamic memorial to the prodigious and robust life of David Halberstam–our early amateur baseball buddy with the mean slide into second base
Contact Adam Tapley, PO Box 19367, Washington, D.C. 20036 or email@example.com.
RALPH NADER is the author of The Seventeen Traditions