One of the enduring images of journalist and author
David Halberstam is of him fording a stream in the jungles of Vietnam. What is striking about the photograph is the expression on Halberstam’s face; he’s flashing a wide smile. Clearly this was a man who loved what he did. Seeing that image again, and many more in the wake of his tragic death in an automobile accident, causes us to sit up and take notice of a man who reported on the dark side of life with all its cruelties yet maintained his equanimity.
Halberstam was no a Pollyanna. He was simply one of the greatest journalists of his era. From Harvard, he went down to the tiny hamlet of West Point, Mississippi to cover the civil rights movement. Mississippi in the Fifties was one of the most feared places on earth for anyone agitating for, or expressing an interest in, civil rights. Halberstam soon moved onto the The Tennessean where he worked under the civil rights-minded editor, John Seigenthaler, Sr. After covering the biggest stories of that era Halberstam got a job with the New York Times and in 1962 found himself in Vietnam. He went as many of his generation, born in the Thirities, were convinced of the righteousness of the American cause.
Seeing the war first hand, he changed his mind and reported what he learned. President John F. Kennedy was so irritated with Halberstam’s reporting that he asked Arthur Times publisher Schultzberger to call him home. Sulzberger did not and Halberstam’s voice was one of the first to report on the ironies and fallacies of American involvement in that tragic war. Later, Halberstam chronicled the U.S. involvement in the war with his first big book, The Best and the Brightest. The message was clear: even when you collect the best brains and the sharpest people, you can find yourself in a blind alley with no easy way out. That’s a lesson that anyone in any manager at any level can learn. And here are three more lessons from Halberstam’s life.
Be broadminded. Halberstam covered the big stories of his era, civil rights and war, but he made time for other interests. His book, The Reckoning, is one of the finest studies of the domestic and Japanese auto industries, as seen through the stories of Ford Motor Company and Nissan. He also loved sports. Summer of ‘49 focuses on the rivalry between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox in that memorable year and Playing for Keeps is an inside look at Michael Jordan in his final season for the Chicago Bulls. [Sadly Halberstam’s death occurred in Northern California where he was set to interview quarterback Y.A. Title for a forthcoming book on the 1958 championship game between the New York Giants and the Baltimore Colts.]
Live for the story. Halberstam did not take himself too seriously. A man who smiled as much as he did never could. The same was true in interviews he gave. Journalist and novelist Frank DeFord recalled for NPR’s Morning Edition his friend’s warmth and good humor, as in the time he insisted that DeFord and his wife bring their dog into a bar for nightcap. His deep voice and his twinkling eyes betrayed a storyteller’s enthusiasm. His books, as friend Ted Koppel remembered, offered hours of good reading. He sketched the big picture, but also told the small stories, too. Because it was through the vignettes of people in power or people with no power that you feel the impact of the times and the era on individuals and society.
Love what you do. The New York Times closed its obituary of Halberstam with a quote that he liked to cite. It is from Julius Irving, one of the most gifted basketball players of his generation. “Being a professional is doing the things you love to do, on the days you don’t feel like doing them.”
For a man who risked his personal safety to get the story, but yet never found himself above the story, or too full of himself to tell it right, this is a fitting epitaph and one that’s good to keep in mind. Work is tough, yeah, but if you love what you do, and are good at it, you can make a difference.
Facts come from Clyde Haberman “David Halberstam, 73, Reporter and Author, Dies” New York Times 4.24.07; “Journalist David Halberstam killed in car crash” CNN.com 4.24.07; Martha Weil and Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb “Author Uncloaked Vietnam Blunders” Washington Post 4.24.07; Interview with Ted Koppel Morning Edition NPR 4.24.07;
Interview with Frank DeFord by Bill Inskeep Morning Edition NPR 4.25.07