David Halberstam (1934-2007) II
Bill Long 5/3/07
Discovering David Halberstam
The previous essay described my fascination with Y.A. Tittle, whom Halberstam was on the way to interview on the morning of April 23, 2007 when the car in which he was a front-seat passenger turned into the path of a 1996 Infiniti and Halberstam was instantly crushed to death. This essay will describe how David Halberstam became a presence in my life in the 1970s and early 1980s.
I was surprisingly apolitical during the Viet Nam War and Watergate era. I was slightly too young for the heaviest days of the War, and my mother made sure that I had a 4F physical designation by getting the Stanford team physician to certify that my injured knee (operation in 1968) should keep me out of combat. But the real reason I think I was apolitical is that I was plunged into a style of life provoked by my conversion to Evangelical Christianity in 1969 that made "mere politics" seem unimportant to me. Much more significant was my commitment to bringing salvation, however defined, to the world. That began to change in theological seminary, of all places, and graduate school. By the mid to late 1970s, I began to chant with mantra-like precision (though with little understanding), the lines of the progressive/left movement in American politics. One of the people that began to give me some depth in understanding American life at that time was David Halberstam.
I began to read Halberstam when his book The Powers that Be was released in 1979. I immediately took to his energetic, masculine style, intimate portraits of powerful people, and eagerness tinged with irony that has always punctuated his writing. Unforgettable to me from that book, among other things, was his picture of Phil Graham, the publisher and co-owner of the Washington Post, who committed suicide in 1963 at age 48. But even though Halberstam could paint a portrait in words as memorable as Sargent's portraits on canvas he always had more at stake than just the people whom he discussed. In this book, for example, he wanted to show the way that the media, both broadcast and print, had gradually risen in prominence in American society so that it played a significant role in American public life.
I was entranced by Halberstam, and I had to pick up The Best and The Brightest (1972). This engrossing account of the powers behind the Viet Nam War (i.e., the Kennedy-Johnson Adminstration), told the most interesting stories about the people in charge but was laced with a bittersweet irony that was impossible to miss. An example of an interesting story was his account of Robert McNamara's incredible memory and focus. I recall Halberstam's account of a "slide-show" briefing for McNamara and some of his generals, a briefing that took about 8 hours. When they had gotten to slide number 250 or so, and everyone else was exhausted or bored, McNamara stopped the slide-show and said that the numbers in slide 250 contradicted those in number 8 or some very early slide. He was right, and people never forgot that story.
Well, this is a vignette Halberstam tells in order to set up the thesis of The Best and the Brightest--that even though America was run by the most significant brain trust in its history (or, at least from the time, as President Kennedy used to say in another connection, that President Jefferson dined alone in the White House), we got involved in the biggest quagmire in the previous 100 years of American history under their watch. These big brain boys got us deeply embedded in Viet Nam, and their decisions have shaped the politics of America even through the current Iraq War (as I have argued elsewhere). How was it that the "best and the brightest," a term coined by Halberstam, could not have seen that America was engaged in an ideological gadarene rush off the cliff in the 1960s? Why couldn't they pull themselves and us back from the precipice before more than 50,000 Americans had given up their lives, and hundreds of thousands more had sacrificed their limbs and their minds to the gods of war? What makes Halberstam's death so eerie is that he was speaking about the connection between the current war in Iraq and our Viet Nam experience on the days before his death.
Shifting Gears--Halberstam on Sports
But then, after my graduate school days in Providence, Boston and West Germany, I landed a teaching job in Oregon in 1982. I had married a woman from Oregon in on June 4, 1977, and we drove from Menlo Park to Portland beginning on the late afternoon of June 4. During Sunday, June 5, we newlyweds were "shusshing" each other as we drove through the Southern Oregon mountains because we were straining to hear the radio account of the sixth game of the NBA finals between the Portland Trailblazers and the Philadelphia 76ers--which the Blazers won (to win the series). Ever since we decided to get married the year previously, I was a Blazer fan. Indeed, I think that one of the reasons I was permitted to marry her was that her family was convinced that I was a genuine "convert" to the Blazers. We spent 1980-81 in Germany; I interviewed and got a teaching position at Reed College in Portland early in 1982; and we moved to Portland with our daughter (born in May 1982) in July.
Well, upon arriving in Portland, one of the first things I did was to pick up another book by David Halberstam, The Breaks of the Game (1981), which was about the Blazers season of 1978-79. He, too, had been entranced by the City of Roses and the fortunes of the Blazers in 1976-77, and he decided to write on the personalities, ambitions and dashed hopes of that season. Most have called that book the best book on sports journalism to its time.
David Halberstam and I "lost touch" in the last two decades, but his untimely death ten days ago brought all these memories swirling back to me again. He not only is an inspiration for aspiring journalists, who are tempted to eliminate the passion from life in order to please corporate sponsors, but he is a beacon for us all-- a beacon who teaches us that the passionate life of investigation, learning, writing, speaking and interpreting is a most worthwhile life for our time or any time. He died as he lived--going for the story. Indeed, his interview with Tittle was to discuss not just the 1958 NFL title game (SF 49ers v. Baltimore Colts) but to understand how this game had launched "modern football" into the American consciousness. David Halberstam was the best and the brightest, and I say that without any irony.