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Wednesday, May 2, 2007 01:41 am

The reporter who roared

David Halberstam never quit asking the tough questions

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David Halberstam (1934-2007)
Untitled Document Neil Sheehan, who worked alongside David Halberstam in the early years of the Vietnam War, recalls what could happen if someone got between Halberstam and a story. Sheehan was writing for UPI and Halberstam for the New York Times, and the two were blocked from flying into the combat zone where a major South Vietnamese defeat had taken place. In frustration, they called the commanding general at home, long after working hours. The next morning, Sheehan says, a brigadier general began berating the reporters for their temerity. The whole time, he could see Halberstam growing angrier. “All of a sudden,” Sheehan says, “this large arm of David’s shot out, and he pointed his finger right at this general and said, ‘General, you don’t understand: We are not corporals. We do not work for you. We work for our editors. If you have any complaints about us, complain to our editors. We will disturb the commanding general at home any time we need to get our job done.’ ”
 Halberstam, who died in a car crash on April 23 in California, had his own chain of command. His vision of the job done right put him at odds with the Army, the White House, and, eventually, the Times.
Among the reporters who would be called the New Journalists, Halberstam was the practical theorist: a reporter who transcended institutions, writing 15 bestselling books under his own standards and imperatives. Gay Talese, who made his own youthful exit from the Times and chronicled Halberstam’s, says that Halberstam was at his best when he chose his own assignments. He had high standards, and he was tough-minded and quick to confront any opposition — including that from his editors. He didn’t depend on the Times to certify his achievement.
“He never felt that the job was a step up,” Talese says. “Out of our generation, there was this idea, ‘Oh, you’re working for the New York Times — wow, you can’t do any better than this.’ Halberstam said, ‘Yes, you can do better than this — and I’m going to do better.’ ”
“I don’t mind arguing this point with anyone: He was the best reporter in the past 50 years,” says Jim Wooten, a senior correspondent for ABC News and a longtime friend of Halberstam’s. “You know why? His work ethic. He never stopped.”
Sheehan — who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize and who, in 1971, obtained the classified Pentagon Papers for the New York Times from Daniel Ellsberg — recalls another day in Vietnam, when a team of police officers attacked Western reporters who were covering a Buddhist demonstration against the regime. In the scuffle, the officers got the Associated Press’ Peter Arnett on the ground and were about to kick him in the kidneys with their pointy shoes. “David, with this great roar, charged and knocked two or three of these Vietnamese right through the air and stood over Peter, protecting him with his fists up, saying, ‘Come on, you sons of bitches, I’ll beat the shit out of you,’ ” Sheehan says. “That was David — absolutely instinctual.”
Colleagues and friends remember an outsized man in body and in intellect. “He was very physical,” Sheehan says. “He gave you a physical presence. He was a big guy, with big shoulders and big bones; he was well over 6 feet — and he had that baritone voice.”
“He was a big, dominating personality,” says William Prochnau, the author of Once Upon a Distant War: David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, Peter Arnett — Young War Correspondents and Their Early Vietnam Battles, “not just because he was 6-foot-2 but because his personality just took over a room. Some people followed him; some people rebelled against him.”
 Prochnau says that Halberstam’s reporting in Vietnam helped shift the paradigm of American journalism, which had remained more or less consistent through the first and second world wars. Reporters were an extension of the government — part of same team. At the start of Vietnam, with the Cold War still in full swing, journalists were united with their military sources in a shared sense of peril. But shortly after arriving in Vietnam in 1962, Halberstam stopped reporting the official optimism of South Vietnamese officials and American officers.
“The question in Halberstam’s mind was whether the government was telling us the truth,” says Prochnau, “and they weren’t. There was a horrendous amount of lying going on. He did not mince words.”
 Prochnau describes a visit to Vietnam by a celebrated World War II correspondent during which Halberstam took the visitor out into the field to show him the country and introduce him to some of his sources. “On the drive back, it was dead silence — until this very well-known reporter said, ‘Halberstam, if I were doing what you are doing, I would be ashamed of myself,’ ” Prochnau says. “There were very bitter fights going on. The Times was often mad at Halberstam. His fellow reporters were. The government was. It was a poignant time.”
 Prochnau compares Halberstam and Sheehan to another closely knit pair: “In a lot of ways, they were Woodward and Bernstein before Woodward and Bernstein were out of school,” he says.
In 1964, Halberstam’s reporting from Vietnam won a Pulitzer Prize for the Times. After subsequent assignments in Poland and Paris, he returned to New York, but he bristled under the restrictions of editor Abe Rosenthal’s newsroom. In 1967, he quit the Times and joined Harper’s magazine, where editor Willie Morris encouraged him to roam in pursuit of stories.  Halberstam enjoyed life without a newsroom. But he continued to revel in the company of fellow newsmen. “He didn’t let friendships go,” says Sheehan. When Halberstam was first hired by the Times, in 1960, Talese says, he came to New York with no place to live. The two met and bonded — in part over their love of the Yankees — and Halberstam moved in with Talese. “From then on, he had orange-juice privileges for the rest of his life,” Talese says, “meaning, he could come over for breakfast whenever he liked.”
Wooten first met Halberstam in Tennessee circa 1970, when Wooten was a reporter for the New York Times and Halberstam for Harper’s. They were both there to write about Al Gore Sr.’s failed bid for reelection to the U.S. Senate. From the start, Wooten was impressed by his new friend’s reporting chops — particularly his willingness to return to sources, again and again and again. “There was no one in power that David either respected so much that he would give them a pass or loathed so much that he would not be fair,” says Wooten. “He was the perfect journalist, the perfect reporter. Halberstam later served as the best man at Wooten’s wedding. Their families vacationed near each other on Nantucket, where, according to Wooten, Halberstam bought a house with the advance from what would become his defining work: The Best and the Brightest, about the architects of the disaster in Vietnam.  Wooten says that he has read a great deal of Halberstam’s recently completed yet still unpublished book about the Korean War and describes it as brilliant. “He said to me about a week ago that he thought this was the best book he had ever written,” Wooten says. Wooten says that he is working on a book about the Carter administration. Halberstam, he says, suggested the topic. Likewise, Wooten says, he never would have written his previous book, We Are All the Same: A Story of a Boy’s Courage and a Mother’s Love, without his friend’s insistence. “David taught me that to write a book is to immerse yourself in it totally, up to your ass,” says Wooten. “He was always your motivational coach — not just with me.”
David Maraniss, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, most recently of Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero, says that, like dozens of other writers of a certain age, he regularly received phone calls from Halberstam, who was brimming with tips and ideas and advice on how to write stories — advice that sometimes sounded more like orders. What was his advice? Says Maraniss: “Do the reporting. Go there. Talk to everybody.”
Recently Maraniss visited a public library in Nashville, Tenn., where he was doing research for a book. There he stumbled upon an entire wing dedicated to civil rights, donated by a reader inspired by Halberstam’s book The Children.
“I wrote David a letter saying, ‘What more can a nonfiction writer do than create results like those?’ ” says Maraniss, “and I told him how moving it was to me.”
Bob Kaiser, an associate editor at the Washington Post, recalls that when he was the Post’s managing editor the paper used to hold a roundtable series in which prominent writers would come to address the newsroom. In the mid-’90s, they invited Halberstam. The interest was so great, according to Kaiser, that there was no space at the Post’s headquarters that could accommodate the crowd. They ended up renting a bigger room at the hotel across the street. “I remember vividly, at the end, he said: ‘When I end an interview, I always say the same thing, and you should ask it, too: “Who else should I talk to?” ’ ” Kaiser says. “It was Halberstam’s trademark question.”
 Talese says he respected the way in which Halberstam left this life: in a car on the way to an interview, with a journalism student at the wheel. “What a great way to die,” says Talese. “When you think about the life that he had — and you could end up with Alzheimer’s in some little old-age home in Westchester County. When you’re as independent as he, and you have to be dependent — which befalls ailing old people — that would be 10 deaths in the worst of hell. Here’s a way to go out: You’re out there on the road, trying to impart what you know to young students. Halberstam died in action.”

Felix Gilette writes for the New York Observer.
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