learnt this morning that david halberstam, pulitzer-winning journalist, author of books like ‘the best and the brightest’, ‘war in a time of peace’, ‘the reckoning’, ‘the powers that be’, and ‘the fifties’, a man whose reporting on the war in vietnam vexed john f kennedy so much that he tried to get halberstam’s publisher, arthur sulzberger, to recall him from nam, has died in a car crash.
it is strange, the sense of loss that accompanies news like this. i didn’t know him. all i did was read some of the books he wrote. and yet, i get this strange strong urge to sit in the dark later this night, to bow my head in a silent salute, and raise a toast to him.
i remember the time when i first read ‘war in a time of peace’. back in those days, i was in the process of pupating into an enthusiastic biker. and yet, fifty pages into ‘war in a time…’, a rich account of american foreign policy after the cold war (a period when, even as the world saw ethnic cleansing in bosnia, somalia and rwanda, america was increasingly unwilling to intervene), i began leaving my bullet home, preferring to take the hot noisy bus with its rotten speakers playing rotten songs to work for the next two weeks. two extra hours to read. that is how good the book was.
it, and all the other books he wrote, underscored a great truth: few things are as powerful as what i call, a tad grandiosely, full-blown investigative journalism. done the right way, it can reveal any truth, nail any lie.
i leave you with some links. the ny times has put together an excellent page on him — his dispatches, reviews of his books, and articles on him. then, there is the transcript of an commencement address he delivered at the university of michigan. a very good chat about halberstam at radio open source. a letter he wrote to his daughter about vietnam. and, finally, a couple of obits — the first from the guardian, the second from the washington post.
another thing: i am deactivating the comments. my time at sussex is drawing to a close. there is too much work to be done. and the comments are a bit of a distraction. if you need to reach me, mail me at mrajshekhar (at) gmail (dot) com.
update: businessweek has just put up the transcript of mr halberstam’s last speech, at the graduate school of journalism, berkeley. an extract to whet your appetite is reproduced below.
“…Reporters are charged traditionally with “who, what, why, when, where.” I think the most important question, as you go towards being a historian, is why. Why do things happen? Why do they not happen? What are the forces at play? And that’s really, I think, what put me out of the routine of daily journalism. This is not just a book you do. This is part of your own education. This is a great, great gift you get from this life. And that is the chance to be paid to learn. I mean, what defines your life at the end of it when you hit 70 or even a few years more is love and friendship and family and things you’ve done. But I think it’s the education and the ability to spend, what is now 52 years, learning every day. Going out every day and asking questions and coming away with just a little bit more knowledge. What a blessing. And each book was really like a graduate school. I’d enter graduate school for four years and learn this and go on to the next one and learn something more. And so I got to study the rise of modern media, a book about the industrial challenge of the Japanese, a book about the Civil Rights movement, a book on the impact of technology on the society of the ’50s, the conflict of the Cold War, the rise of the China lobby in the Korean War—that’s a great education. That’s more than any person really has a right to expect.
I was in this without knowing it, a part of a larger movement of restless reporters of a generation. Restless, with the narrow boundaries of journalism as they existed in the ’50s and into the ’60s. We probably were responding without knowing it, to the changes forced by technology. One thing print had always been was the fastest carrier, but there was a new faster carrier, television and it was self-evidently more powerful and seemingly more dramatic. So we had to do things they couldn’t do. We had to go places where they couldn’t go. We had to use skills that they didn’t use. And we were very lucky, because they were so incredibly lazy. (Laughter)
In television newsrooms across the county: there’s a football game, let’s get the camera angle of the local fans at a bar cheering on their team. Because the instrument itself was so powerful, and it was an end in itself, really, this storytelling, they did not do reporting that was really complete. What they did was a greater gift: they raised the question in people’s homes every night that we had the chance to answer if we used our skills properly.
If we did this, we had to be thoughtful of where we went and where we didn’t go, we had to write reasonably well, because we were now in competition with something. A new media carrier, which had drama and excitement, was competing with the time of our audience. There they were out there, and they were offering something exciting and easy to follow. And if we were to compete, we’d better be very good storytellers.
There is, I think, craft.”