The greatest reporter of our time, and why we should never forget him
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The Washington Post

The greatest reporter of our time, and why we should never forget him

When he died, exactly 10 years ago in a freak car accident, David Halberstam wasn’t remembered as just any other reporter.

His peers held him in such high regard, they launched what was billed as an authorless book tour for his last work, “The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War.”

Halberstam’s promo squad included investigative icons (Seymour Hersh, Bob Woodward), writing masters (Joan Didion, Anna Quindlen), a future U.N. ambassador (Samantha Power) and even the curly-haired, Grateful Dead-loving basketball legend Bill Walton.

Hersh said the tour was to promote the book, not the author.

“You don’t need this to keep David alive,” he said.

Except a decade after his death at the age of 73, it’s rare to hear anyone talking about David Halberstam. Which is a shame. Because nobody told the sweeping story of 20th-century America, of the “macro forces affecting the world and the government,” as the novelist John Burnham Schwartz describes it, like Halberstam.

Halberstam’s all-consuming approach to information gathering allowed him to take on just about anything, from the civil rights movement and Vietnam to professional basketball. Everything started with the interviews, carried out almost compulsively. That wealth of material allowed Halberstam to ignore barriers of access. So he could write a sprawling book on Michael Jordan even when, partway through his reporting, the thin-skinned basketball star decided to avoid him. He wrote with such rich detail about the White House advisers who sucked us into Vietnam that you wondered whether he slept in Robert McNamara’s sock drawer. This, despite President John F. Kennedy, at one point, wanting him yanked off his New York Times beat. (Halberstam did actually get kicked out of Poland, in 1965, for reporting unfavorably about the Polish government.)

He did not let up. Halberstam was on his way to interview Hall of Fame quarterback Y.A. Tittle when he was killed in a car accident.

“He used to say to me all the time, if you think you’ve done enough reporting, you’re wrong,” says Quindlen, who met Halberstam in the 1970s, when she was working at the New York Times. “He’d say, ‘Who else do you know who knows about this?’ And you’d give him three or four names. He did that sort of pyramid scheme of reporting where one person gave him three more people gave him 10 more people and he always followed. The guy was on a reporting trip when he was killed. All of us afterwards said, ‘David must have been really looking forward to that Y.A. Tittle interview.’ ”

A tireless hunter of detail

There are reasons, of course, why Halberstam’s Q-rating hasn’t exactly blossomed over the years, why master documentarian Alex Gibney couldn’t get “The Best and the Brightest” made and Tom D. Herman spent 12 years on “Dateline-Saigon.” That film, about Halberstam and his journalistic peers in Vietnam, is now making the rounds on the festival circuit as Herman searches for a distributor.

“It’s been hard, in part, because people don’t know who David Halberstam is,” says Herman.

Hunter Thompson, the great Gonzo journalist, posed ankle-deep in snow with a pistol drawn at his Selectric. Woodward and Bernstein were given big-screen immortality by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. Halberstam’s style was to almost have no style. In most photos, he’s dressed like an insurance salesman or undertaker: plain tie, white shirt, dark jacket. He may have exhaustively covered hundreds of subjects. He did not let himself become one. On the rare occasion that he wrote about his family, his writing was flat and vague. There isn’t a single probing profile, never mind a biography, written about one of the greatest documenters of his time. There certainly was no memoir.

“I don’t think he saw that as the story,” says Julia Halberstam, 36, his daughter. (His wife, Jean, died in 2014.) “He was always really generous with younger reporters in terms of sharing, but the idea of writing a memoir, he didn’t see that as his charge.”

His charge was what he put on the page.

For Halberstam, the facts were the foundation. And that foundation established a truth that allowed him to draw on his vast knowledge of politics, psychology and social structure. He also, on a simple level, simply worked harder than anyone else. The evidence is in the 21 books he left behind.

Bill Kovach, then a young reporter at the Johnson City Press Chronicle in Tennessee, remembers meeting Halberstam in 1959. They were covering the Senate primaries and staying in the same hotel. That night, as he tried to sleep, Kovach heard the pounding sound of typewriter keys through his hotel wall. The next day, he approached Halberstam.

“David,” Kovach said, “what the hell are you doing all night?”

“I’m working on a great story,” Halberstam said.

Kovach would go on to become the Washington bureau chief of the New York Times and editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. But Halberstam would be the pioneer on one of the most important stories of the era, the story of the civil rights movement.

“I knew it was going on but didn’t think it could amount to anything,” Kovach says. “A bunch of black kids going to the capital? It didn’t impress most reporters. But Halberstam. That’s the reason he came south. He was on top of that story before any reporter in Tennessee or any reporter in the South.”

By 1962, Halberstam was working at the New York Times and had been assigned to cover Vietnam. Although he would write books on everything from rowing and firefighters to the media industry, this is where he did his most important work. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1964 for international reporting. “The Best and the Brightest,” published in 1972, shows off Halberstam’s ability to connect a detailed character study with the bigger picture.

The reader met McNamara, Kennedy’s boy genius defense secretary, with his “hair slicked down in a way that made him look like a Grant Wood subject.”

“Do not, he told his aides, let people brief me orally. If they are going to make a presentation, find out in advance and make them put it on paper. “Why?” an aide asked. A cold look. “Because I can read faster than they can talk.”

That’s the detail. In his account, Halberstam then, with a simple flourish, defined McNamara as a “can-do man in the can-do society, in the can-do era.” Now his central figure represents something larger.

“He didn’t consider things in a vacuum, as something that exists on its own plane,” says Will Schwalbe, one of his former editors. “That ability to contextualize the events and the decisions and the politics was extraordinary, and so needed.”

A legacy worthy of enduring

He was an inspiration for younger writers and a mentor. But he could also be ferociously competitive and hold a grudge.

At Boston University’s Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, the Halberstam files include a delicious 1999 exchange with then-Talk editor Tina Brown in which he refuses to accept an assignment because, in 1986, the Brown-run Vanity Fair bungled a deal to run an excerpt from his auto industry book, “The Reckoning.”

“It’s thirteen years later — and 44 years since I wrote my first national magazine article — and no editor has ever treated me so cavalier a way,” he wrote.

Two years later, Steven Brill heard from Halberstam after he terminated an assignment by fax.

“I have been working as a journalist and writer for 46 years and no other employer I have ever dealt with has ever behaved in so appalling and disrespectful a manner,” Halberstam wrote.

Then there was his obsessive pursuit of the story.

Gay Talese talks of a falling out with Halberstam.

In the early ’80s, the two realized they were both courting Chrysler chief Lee Iacocca. But Talese already had been traveling with Iacocca. Because of their friendship, Talese suggested they both drop the subject. Halberstam refused. The disagreement led to a more than decade-long freeze in their relationship. Talese decided not to write his Iacocca book. Halberstam wrote “The Reckoning.”

“Leo Durocher said he’d knock over his grandmother if she was blocking second base,” Talese says. “I was upset, I was shocked. That this was going to break us up. I believed I was more important to Halberstam than a story. I was wrong.”

Those stories are what remain.

Herman, the producer and director of “Dateline-Saigon,” found himself comforted when he visited Baghdad during filming. There, in the New York Times bureau, was a dog-eared copy of “The Best and the Brightest.”

And Quindlen has been invoking Halberstam constantly in recent months. She wants journalists to remember his determination and persistence at a moment when the White House is working to shut out members of the press corps.

“Reporters are hardly ever stars and probably shouldn’t be,” she says. “Most Americans wouldn’t know who Nellie Bly is or Ida B. Wells is. Woodward and Bernstein are the exception that provide the rule, and I think that would be okay with David. It’s not so much you should remember the name. We should be living every day with the standard he set.”

By Geoff Edgers, The Washington Post
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