I could not shake my feeling of profound sadness when I learned on Monday that David Halberstam had lost his life in a traffic accident. Older generations remember Halberstam as the bold and energetic foreign-affairs correspondent for the New York Times. His reporting from Vietnam would earn him, at age thirty, the Pulitzer Prize. But as he grew older, he developed a broader following as one of America’s best-known authors, historians, and social commentators. What distinguished Halberstam was his ability to craft a riveting story that opened a window onto America, a story that illuminated our history and told us who we are. Recalling his seminal work, The Best and the Brightest, Halberstam remembered: “I was becoming caught up in the excitement of history, the pull of the past. Nothing about it bored me.” The careful research, the narrative power, and the attention to detail shone through every one of his works. Halberstam was, noted the writer Gay Talese, a “man who didn’t have a lazy bone in his body.” When the accident on Monday cut his life short, Halberstam was, at age seventy-three, en route to an interview for his next book.
So many wonderful books—and so many! He told stories of war and peace, baseball and basketball, the media and the auto industry, the 1950s and the civil rights movement. Yesterday, I watched the video of his appearance in the John F. Kennedy, Jr. Forum at the Kennedy School of Government in 2002. As the session drew to a close, the interviewer asked him what we all wondered as we read his captivating prose: How do you write all of those books? He answered, simply, that he was a lucky man, fortunate to possess a gift as a writer and grateful to do work that he loved.
But it was his legendary work ethic, his determination to tell the story and tell it well, that brought those gifts that Halberstam possessed to life. Where Halberstam excelled, what separated him from the pack, was in what he called the “legwork”—the reporting, the poring over archival material, the hundreds of interviews he conducted, often returning to conduct a follow-up interview, and then a third, and a fourth. Pat Riley, the Hall-of-Fame basketball coach, recalled in his motivational bestseller The Winner Within a story that Halberstam had once told him: Halberstam had published a well-received book in 1965 on Robert Kennedy. Yet he soon came across another book on the subject that was, Halberstam admitted, better than his, simply because that author had worked harder on the research. Halberstam would never again be outworked. In 1972, Halberstam published, after four years of painstaking research and writing—and uncertainty, for he had left his work as a journalist for an unsure future—his acclaimed account of the decision-making that launched the war in Vietnam, The Best and the Brightest. “The great pleasure for me was an inner pleasure,” recalled Halberstam many years later. “It was very simply the best I could do.”
While Halberstam made his mark telling that gripping story of the men who brought us to Vietnam, he soon became well-known as an eminent sportswriter and chronicler of the American scene. For Halberstam, writing about sports was delightful—though no less rigorous, nor less attentive to little things, than any of his other works. And so readers of books such as The Breaks of the Game, Summer of ’49, Playing for Keeps, and The Education of a Coach found that the books possessed the same level of depth and insight and narrative power. It was a mark of his versatility that Halberstam, who won a Pulitzer Prize for war reporting, could also become a columnist for ESPN’s Page 2 and edit a volume entitled The Best American Sportswriting of the Century. Indeed, when Halberstam, who had just finished the proofs on a book on the Korean War, died on Monday, he was traveling to interview an old quarterback for his next project, a book about the 1958 NFL championship game.
I had the opportunity to speak with Halberstam when I was a senior in high school. When we had the chance to pursue a project of our own choosing after our Advanced Placement exams were finished, I chose to read several of his books: Playing for Keeps, The Fifties, Summer of ’49, and Firehouse. That last book was a moving portrait of the men in the firehouse near his Manhattan home who had perished in the attacks on September 11th. The book testified to the strength, character, and courage of the men who died, and the legacy that they left—a legacy that, Halberstam wrote, demonstrated the “nobility of ordinary people,” men who viewed their work as a calling and sacrificed their lives for strangers. After I had finished the books and written some journal responses that served as my coursework, my teacher encouraged me to try to interview Halberstam, as a sort of bookend for the project. I checked the Manhattan phonebook and found a listing for a David Halberstam and called the number. A man with a deep voice answered the phone. “How would I arrange a brief interview with Mr. Halberstam?” I asked. “This is Mr. Halberstam,” he replied—the legendary writer answered his own phone. We set up a time for the following week, and I had to opportunity to ask him a range of questions: how he did his legwork, his techniques for interviewing, his sportswriting, his views on Iraq, and his advice for a student about to head off to his alma mater. He was unfailingly gracious with his time, as I’ve read he was with the thousands of journalists who solicited his advice over his lifetime.
And as he approached the end of his illustrious career, Halberstam offered advice for those graduating from college and just starting out. “In all things in life, choose your conscience, and trust your instincts and lead your lives without regrets,” Halberstam noted in a commencement address at Tulane four years ago. “Other than the choice of a lifetime partner, nothing determines happiness so much as choosing the right kind of work.” It was work that he loved and relished, and that produced books that the rest of us, and the next generation, will continue to treasure. There is an old adage that says, “No one on their deathbed ever wished that they had spent more time at the office.” Whoever coined that adage did not know David Halberstam.
Vivek Viswanathan– Books & Arts editor