The big fisherman, who is David Halberstam, journalist's journalist nowdays, wades into the gray spring noon of Manhattan's East 91st Street, a block which is snug between avenues Park and Madison. He is baiting up with adjectives, casting out nouns before he even hits the sidewalk: "This is a wonderful neighborhood, I love living here, a truly remarkable place, one of the last strongholds of the middle class in Manhattan. . . "
A strike! Halberstam sets the hood: "A really genuinely American neighborhood, a phenomenon, and they're struggling to keep it that way."
Middle class? 91st between Park and Madison" Home of the Dalton School for girls, brownstone heaven, filigree ironwork and a pay phone on the corner that works?
In any case, the neighborhood has been neatly boated and now flops inside the gunwales of consciousness as Halberstam strides through the lunch-time air, flicking modifiers at the restaurant, a neighborhood place . . ." He is 6-feet-3, 200 pounds, shoulders cantilevering under a corduroy jerkin, white shirt rolled to the hairy elbows.
Halberstam, at 45, is fame and power's own notary public. He has just published his long-awaited, much-debated seventh book, 771 pages (including 34 pages of acknowledgments, bibliography and index) entitled "The Powers That Be."
The powers are the media. What they be is less certain, except that Halberstam was certified as a wielder of their power the day that John F. Kennedy tried to talk The New York Times into pulling him out of Vietnam. "The Times refused." He had already covered the civil rights struggle for The Nashville Tennessean, heading south in 1955 instead of exercising his perquisites as a star at the Harvard Crimson and going a New York.
In 1960 he moved to The Times' Washington bureau, then covered rebellion and secessison in the Congo. Then Vietnam, culminating in 1972's "The Best and the Brightest," his infinitely particulared dissection of the body politic's addiction to the war.
Halberstam got all the big ones.
"Are they bay scallops or sea scallops," he asks, transfixing the waitress at the Summerhouse with a stare which is oddly friendly, for all its ferocity.
"Good, wonderful, so sweet," he exclaims in another barage of hyperbole-among his friends" nicknames for him are "Rolling Thunder" and "Jehovah."
The atmosphere is latter-day ladies-lunchey, old marble-top tables out of nostalgia's drugstore. It makes Halberstam seem to sprawl and orate bigger than ever, despite his claim that after seven years of worrying about this book, he's "emotionally and physically exhausted.
"After 'The Best and the Brightest' I kept looking for something to write about. I tried the oil companies but I dropped that; I wanted to write about people. I was going to write about Congress, about corruption . . . It was a period of anxiety. You know that Andy Warhol line about everybody being famour for 11 minutes? My 11 minutes seemed to be up. I could imagine people saying: 'Who was the guy, you know, the tallest and the smartest?"
Now, he's a power that is, with this huge book that gathers the very best office gossip from Time Magazine, CBS, The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post, then elevates it all to near-epic with Halberstam's irresistible importancy syntax, which resembles Eric Sevareid reading Hemingway aloud: "He was totally without sentiment: he knew what was good and would sell, what was bad and would sell, and what was good and would not sell, and he never confused one with another."
Thus is CBS' William Paley protrayed, and so goes the rest of the book, superlatives serving as analysis, but a boatload of anecdotes-Walter Cronkite writing "I quit" on a slip of paper even while broadcasting the delegate count at the 1968 Democratic convention: Sam Rayburn confusing Juarez, Mexico, with El Paso, Texas; The Post's Watergate investigator, Robert Woodward, poring through his lawyer father's files as a boy.
"I've just been delivering a tirade against your attackers," announces sportswriter/novelist Dan Jenkins, who has just walked in the restaurant. He swaps low despairs and high dudgeons with Halberstam, who has also been joined, for a moment, by his current housemate, Jean Butler, known as Slim. "Halberstam has been married once, to a Polish film star named Elzbieta."
Slim is intriguing in beret pulled low over huge eyes, a look of dramatic serendipity, as if she had just found shelter from a thunderstorm. She is the product of a cattle ranch in Souther Dakota, Miss Porter's School in Connecticut, Smith College and The New York Times, for which she used to report.
Like Halberstam and Jenkins, she treats this business of attacks with great earnestness.
Despite the generally good, big reviews by good, big reviewers, Halberstam has been getting attacked for his style: a caveat in The New York Times, a savage disquisition in The Village Voice. And a satire displayed in red, white and blue on the cover of The New Republic: "David Halberstam. Halberstam, that was what every body called him (after all, it was his name). They always said 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."
The thing is, Halberstam is merely following that first organic precept of American prose style: Write as you talk. And he talks that way.
"I'm four for four on the big ones, the ones I really wanted, the ones that count," Halberstam says, assuming Jenkins knows which ones the big ones are. "I'm four for four on them. But thanks," he says.
"I'm Not Tolstoy"
The major attack in question is Alexander Cockburn's, in The Village Voice. It is Cockburn in his best archpersiflage manner. It is the talk of literary New York.
"What can you do?' Halberstam asks. "Alex is an enormously talented writer, a very clever writer, I've enjoyed him in the past, and [a shrug, here] I'm learning to enjoy him now. Naturally, you want a book to live and be liked-it's like children, but there's a law of averages . . ."
The children/averages metaphor does not seem to catch the reality in question, however, so Halberstam tries again.
"You want the book to live. Some people aren't going to like the book. Some aren't going to like you. Some are not going to like the success which . . . your anticipated success. And, after all," Halberstam says with wonderfully humble, pleading, let's-face-it eyes: "I'm not Tolstoy. It's a very unusual book, unusual in its conception, unusual in its execution, unusual in its organization . . ."
Still, Halberstam doesn't look satisfied: "There are some games when you can't pitch . . . you can't always . . . [his face brightens, he sits back] there are certain stadiums where my curve is going to hang!"
Halberstam keeps using these hearland Americanisms-but then, he's entitled to them, having grown up in New York, Texas, Minnesota and Winsted, Conn. (where he went to school with Ralph Nader), as his family followed his doctor father around to a variety of World War II posts with the Army Air Corps.
Halberstam is the scion of a long line of Hassidic rabbis, but both his parents belonged to that uniquely American group, the small town Jews whose orthodoxy waned for lack of peers. By the time the family got back to Yonkers, N.Y., Halberstam, as Jew, was an anomaly.
His older brother Michael, a physician and novelist in Washington, has recallded that their mother avoided the overprotective "Jewish mother" syndrome: "Other mothers would come to our house and say, "Mrs. Halberstam, your boys are climbing on those rocks." And she'd say 'They're good at it, aren't they?'"
Halberstam's friends ('I guess you could call them Manhattan's intellectual elite") are fond of boasting of their loyalty to him, though they like to stay off the record when they discuss him. They are so loyal, they say, because Halberstam is so loyal to them, "a sort of godfather and guru figure," says one. Or: "All David has to do is hear that you're in any kind of trouble and he's on your doorstep." On the other hand, at least some of them stay off the record because, as one puts it: "I've seen what happens when David turns on someone."
In fact, his tirades about the moral and professional worth of people he doesn't like are hyperbolized to such schoolboy earnestness that it's hard to take them terribly seriously. He can rail on cue, for instance, at a figure in a Harper's magazine coup that led editor Willie Morris and Halberstam, among others, to leave: "I hate his guts. He behaved dishonorably. I have never f -- forgiven him, I never will f -- forgive him, he disgraced himself, I want to punch him out."
The creatures of Halberstam's world tend to take everything terribly seriously, literary swashbuckers with adverbs dripping blood. From Elaine's to the Russian Tea Room, the eyes narrow with vengeance, the teeth grind. Yet Halberstam, in this world, seems a bit of a bumpkin, not sly or cutting, but a freak of sanctimony. He inspires a touch of embarrassment which endears him to listeners. Though intimacy is not the point.
Halberstam talks with the roaring, repetitive enthusiasm of a man trying to persuade himself, first of all, of the validity of his passions. This analysis belongs to a friend, and Halberstam finds it "intriguing." (he also delights in being called a 'square' with "old-fashioned morality.")
In his great, insistent baritone, his lower lip thrusting and bowing (you never see his upper teeth when he talks) he speaks like a man trying to catch the truth by guessing at it, tempting it with simulacra until it . . . bites.
Journalism and Fishing
Fishing. To go fishing with David is to know him, say his friends: fishing for bludefish in the Atlantic Ocean off Nantucket where Halberstam spends summers surrounded, usually, by hordes of media compadres, some wearing the "Coffin Street Writers Colony" T-shirts they had made up, as a joke.
Journalism and fishing have been inseparable since Halberstam was 9 or 10, he recalls, and edited "The Halberstam News," to which "all relatives were forced to subscribe. Mostly, it was about what fish I caught: 'David caught a legal-length pickerel off Cecil Isbell's dock on Island Lake.'
"We had a favorite uncle, Uncle Moe, known as Moosh, who taught us about fishing. He was a real character, always dropping off fish he'd caught, caught them illegally, at night."
Friends who've caught bluefish ("They've crazed, they're killers." with Halberstam refer to him as "Ahab," a monicker variously attributed to Esquire writer Jim Wooton his 6-year-old daughter Katy; a name which friends pass on as a sly confidence, and which Halberstam boasts of.
Anyhow: "We go out in a 20-foot Mako, three or four of us, with Fenwick rods, which are terribly light rods, we want ot get a lot of fight out of the fish. I own five or six of them, so everyone can have one-the idea of inflicting a lesser rod on people is unconscionable,' he says, savoring the phrase with a look in which he seems to pursue his lips and smile at the same time." $"Why do they call me Ahab? I suppose because it requires a certain discipline . . . I mean, you're out in the Atlantic Ocean," he exclaims, evoking the bounding main with his frown, "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 and . . . " And Halberstam scribbles a diagram, raging with fascination now. It all means so much, this catching of fish.
They are more than food, more than sport or even trophies. "Fred Graham "the CBS Washington correspondent) was up fishing one summer and caught a huge bluefish. He decided to take it home on the plane stopped at Martha's Vineyard, and Walter Cronkite got on.When Walter saw that fish, Graham went wa-a-a-a-y up in his estimation."
A People Writer
Back in his apartment, a floor-and-a-half with a marble fireplace and wainscoting, ("God I love it, I love this apartment.") Halberstam lounges on a brown silk couch and explains that he dallied at The Nashville Tennessean for five years "because the weaker the paper, the more fun you have. Once a paper gets so powerful that governments rise and fall by the click of the typewriter, it isn't any fun."
Exactly: The New York Times allowed no sporting with a Fenwick rod, which may explain why his feelings about it-and its about him-remain so ambivalent, and why he quit to become a contributing editor at Harpers's.
Then again, Halberstam has written about little but the mighty in his last two huge books. Unlike his friend Gay Talese, who wrote "The Kingdom and the Power' about The New York Times, Halberstam, in his book on the media, takes no interest in sports-page agate clerks or obituary writers. He deals with little but very stellar reporters, managing editors and ranks above.
In "The Best and the Brightest," Halberstam fulfilled the promise of the title, implying, at least by omission, that history is made by cabals of the famous and powerful, not by ideology, economic necessity, demographics, or cultural differences. He is a people writer, a delver into all the details of famous lives.
Even in his most scathing portraits, there is peculiar respect and affection, perhaps the product of his obvious pride in his reporting, the fact that he has landed these men, these details, like trophy catches.
"What fascinated me was that they were the best," he says.
Hence his determination to prove that the powers that be in media were somehow the best, too, going so far as to claim that William Paley's father was a man of "genuine skill in the blending of tobacco. He had a fell for the texture of tobacco . . . proved to be a masterful cigar maker, the most successful one in the country at the time, and his success was genuine."
Everyone, in Halberstamhs world, is larger than the life most of us know, and if readers don't know it already, as they did with, say, Lyndon Johnson, Halberstam makes sure they learn.
"I'm going to take a year off now. I'll do some writing, but not another big book. I was thinking of doing some short stories about reporting, about the daily life of journalists, stuff I saw and lived through in the Congo and South Vietnam. I don't know if I can do it well," he says-the hardest catch, after all, being the fisherman himself. CAPTION: Pictures 1 and 2, David Halberstam, by S. Karin Epstein for The Washington Post