Recalling David Halberstam

The Chicago Tribune

In the spring of 1960, my dad, who worked at RCA Victor, was assigned to accompany Elvis Presley home to Nashville from Ft. Dix, N.J. Elvis, who had just returned from his service in the Army, was about to make his first recording for RCA.

They traveled by train, and at each town and city, reporters would rush onto the car to interview Elvis. My dad remembered only one of those reporters. He was a tall, skinny man with a booming voice and a load of self-confidence who at the time was working for Nashville’s Tennessean. He had cornered Elvis against a wall of the train car and was asking him real questions, questions that, as my dad said, cut to the heart. My dad turned to Elvis’ manager, Colonel Tom Parker, and asked, “Who is that?” It was, Parker told my dad, a reporter by the name of David Halberstam.

Halberstam was, of course, undaunted by rank – whether it was the celebrity of Elvis or the prestige of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. In 1962, at age 28, Halberstam went to Saigon for The New York Times, and there he made a name for himself – though he had already done some extraordinary reporting from the Congo and from America’s South.

He trusted what he saw. He trusted what he heard. He trusted what he felt. He sniffed out incompetence and hypocrisy, and called people on it. When American generals manipulated body counts and stood by South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem’s corrupt regime, Halberstam did the only thing he knew how to do: tell the truth.

There’s a moment recounted in William Prochnau’s book “Once Upon a Distant War,” a riveting account of the young war correspondents in the early days of the Vietnam War, when Halberstam ran into Gen. Joseph Stilwell. Halberstam had just written a front-page story for the Times suggesting that the Viet Cong were making extraordinary gains in the Delta. Stilwell told Halberstam, “I took apart [your story] line by line and you got it dead wrong.” To which Halberstam replied, “General, you’re a liar.” Would that, could that, happen today?

Halberstam went on to write “The Best and the Brightest,” a scathing indictment of those who led us into Vietnam. It has become the bible among a generation of journalists. George Packer, who has covered the Iraq war for The New Yorker, wrote of how during his first summer there, “among reporters in Baghdad, ‘The Best and the Brightest’ kept coming up in conversation, making it clear that any historical account that may be written about the origins of this new war will have only one model.”

Halberstam was the antidote to the world of blogging and to the proliferation of pundits. Halberstam, for sure, had fixed opinions, which in his deep, voluminous voice sometimes seemed as if they were emanating from God himself. When in 1979 he heard that the University of Chicago had chosen to honor McNamara with an award, he remarked:

“What are they giving him the award for? Increasing international understanding with the North Vietnamese from 35,000 feet?”

But he came to his certitude honestly, through tedious, meticulous, unrelenting reporting. He devoured information. He asked questions. He pushed. He pulled. He did what he had to do to make sense of the world around him. In a “Doonesbury” comic strip he was once depicted as a human vacuum cleaner, but that only caught half of Halberstam, for what he inhaled, he turned into gold. He was an alchemist of sorts, taking bigger-than-life stories – like Vietnam, the decline of the American auto industry, the increasing concentration of media ownership – and making them so accessible and human for the rest of us.

Halberstam wrote more than 20 books, which, taken together, stand as a kind of story encyclopedia on the last half-century, an unusually exuberant and turbulent period in American history. It’s what Halberstam did best: capture the contradictions of this nation. He was a true patriot, someone who believed deeply in this country and so felt it his duty to expose its flaws as well as celebrate its triumphs.

I came to know David well. Eight years after my dad encountered him interrogating Elvis, he became David’s editor at Harper’s where excerpts of “The Best and the Brightest” were first published. They became close friends, and so David became a friend and mentor to my brother and me. I can well remember as a child David slinging his arm over our shoulders, asking us about school and girlfriends and basketball, and assuring us that if we needed anything, he was there.

He was, indeed. He was an extraordinarily bighearted man who, despite his obsessiveness with his own work (How could it be any other way?), assisted and nudged and cajoled young writers, helping them land jobs, or suggesting story ideas, or simply telling them (demanding, really) to keep writing. And so when I became a journalist, I became a beneficiary of the Halberstam touch – or perhaps more aptly the Halberstam poke.

When I was in New York, I’d often give David a call, and we’d get together for breakfast, over which he’d ask me, as he asked Elvis, real questions. About my family. About my dad. About my work. And then he’d throw out suggestions for articles and books. He was filled with ideas, so many that even though he moved seamlessly from book to book (when he was killed in an auto accident in April, he was on his way to interview Y.A. Tittle, the former New York Giants quarterback, for his next work, a book on the 1958 NFL title game), he had this enormous stockpile, far too many for him to pursue. If I had taken David up on just half the ideas he threw my way, I’d have written twice as many books.

That may well be among his greatest legacies, his extraordinary generosity to a younger generation of journalists – and the ongoing influence he has on our work.

Books

Chicago is one of America’s most iconic, historic, and fascinating cities. For Alex Kotlowitz, an accidental Chicagoan, it is the perfect perch from which to peer into America’s heart.

Separated by a river, St. Joseph and Benton Harbor are two Michigan towns that are geographically close, yet worlds apart. St. Joseph is a prosperous, predominately white lakeshore community while Benton Harbor is impoverished and predominately black. When the body of Eric McGinnis, a black teenage boy from Benton Harbor, is found in the river that separates the towns, relations between the two communities grow increasingly strained as longheld misperceptions and attitudes surface. 

There Are No Children Here chronicles two years in the lives of two boys, Lafeyette and Pharoah, struggling to survive in Chicago’s Henry Horner Homes, a public housing complex disfigured by crime and neglect. 

© 2017, Alex Kotlowitz. All rights reserved