A Journalist For Whom There Were Not Enough Words

David Halberstam wrote more than 20 books on a variety of subjects.
David Halberstam wrote more than 20 books on a variety of subjects. (1986 Photo By Ellsworth J. Davis -- The Washington Post)
By Henry Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 25, 2007

David Halberstam was out to save the world back in the '60s and '70s when a lot of smart people believed that journalism would save the world, and Halberstam was just the man to lead the way, a big, bombastic man with big shoulders and features and a face full of furious wonder and realization.

As it turned out, the world didn't agree with the smart people, and a journalistic heyday passed. But Halberstam never stopped working.

On Monday, at 73, with more than 20 books and a Pulitzer Prize on his shelf he was still at it, traveling to an interview in California when he died in a car crash.

He saw journalism as a calling, like later reporters who took him as a model in the mightiness of their efforts. He did not see it as a mere opportunity, like some of the cool-seeking, educated young people who wanted to go to high-end dinner parties and be serious and indignant like Halberstam, to have a house like his on Nantucket, to be Halberstam. He was that kind of star for a while. (The problem was, they couldn't find everything in the world Very Important in the Halberstamian mode, everything from war to fishing for blues off Nantucket. They were too ironic, too Doonesbury.)

He started working in the mid-'50s, before journalism was hip. He covered big stories: civil rights in the South, war in Africa, and Vietnam when John Kennedy was getting us into it with the help of "The Best and the Brightest," as Halberstam called the elite and arrogant aides whose folly brought on our failure there.

He was not cool. He spewed sentences whose dependent clauses piled up into midden heaps of outrage or joy.

As part of an interview at lunch in 1979, he gave me this reaction to a bad review of his 1979 media book, "The Powers That Be."

"Naturally, you want a book to live and be liked, it's like children, but there's a law of averages -- you want the book to live. Some people aren't going to like the book. Some people aren't going to like you. Some are not going to like the success which -- your anticipated success. And, after all, I'm not Tolstoy. It's a very unusual book, unusual in its conception, unusual in its execution, unusual in its organization."

All of this erupted from a fierce scrim of incantatory facial gestures, eyebrows divebombing his big nose, his lower lip jutting to show lower teeth but never upper ones while he oraculated to a reporter.

This was in The Summerhouse, a discreetly upscale restaurant just down the street from his townhouse on the Upper East Side. ("This is a wonderful neighborhood, I love living here, a truly remarkable place, one of the last strongholds of the middle class in Manhattan." I wondered: Middle class? On 91st between Park and Madison?)

His schoolboy earnestness seemed preposterous in a man this famous, sophisticated and well connected, but it was the preposterousness that made him likable rather than insufferable. It even made him lovable unless you were on his enemies list, which was not short.

How he could roar on, gaining sincerity with every word. The New Republic satirized the same book: "David Halberstam. Halberstam, that was what everybody called him (after all, it was his name). They always said that what Halberstam needed was a good editor, his sentences ran on and on, he piled phrase upon phrase and clause upon clause, he used commas the way other men used periods."

He was only following the writing teacher's advice by writing the way he talked. He talked that way enough that his friends called him Rolling Thunder, Jehovah and Ahab. Even though they knew he knew about these nicknames, and they said they had no better friend than David, they didn't want to be quoted by name.

The Ahab came from friends who'd gone bluefishing with him off Nantucket.

"Why do they call me Ahab?" Halberstam said that day in 1979. "I suppose because it requires a certain discipline . . . I mean, you're out in the Atlantic Ocean and one of those lures could tear your eyes out, so you have to be so careful. The moment when you're bringing a fish into the boat is terribly dangerous, the rod can snap back . . . "

This was how he talked about a day of fishing. He'd been hit by shrapnel in Africa. He'd waded through swamps on patrols in Vietnam. He'd written stories so inflammatory that John Kennedy suggested, futilely, that the publisher of the Times remove him from the war beat. (He won a Pulitzer Prize for his Vietnam coverage, at the age of 30.) Now the subject was fishing. Everything was important to Halberstam. He concatenated bluefishing ("They're crazed, they're killers") into the same drama that he found in war or industrial empire building. He cared. He judged and condemned, too, but he cared.

People have made fun of him, but among his many contributions he had the moral sense to eschew the terrible irony that has exhausted so much of the generation that followed him. He liked being called a "square" with "old-fashioned morality." He believed in work. He did a lot of it.

The 19th-century psychologist William James might have been thinking of people like Halberstam when he wrote: "We measure ourselves by many standards . . . our strength and our intelligence, our wealth and even our good luck. . . . But deeper than all such things and able to suffice unto itself without them, is the sense of the amount of effort we can put forth. . . . He who can make none is but a shadow; he who can make much is a hero."

For those who remember journalism back in a 1970s heyday they can't explain to to the young, Halberstam's death was not just the death of a hero, it was like the death of the great Hollywood stars -- Katharine Hepburn, Clark Gable. Who would replace them? No one has. Maybe no one ever does.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company