BROOKE GLADSTONE: David Halberstam died in a car accident on Monday, the day before the testimony on the death of Army Corporal Pat Tillman. But he would have recognized what it signified. The reporter was famous for exposing lies in war, notably the Vietnam War, as a reporter for The New York Times, but he didn’t begin as an opponent of the war. DAVID HALBERSTAM: We wanted it to work, and then it didn’t work so we started saying it didn’t work, and that’s when they all started attacking us as – these are the guys who want us to lose. BROOKE GLADSTONE: New Yorker editor David Remnick was a friend of Halberstam’s. He says it’s hard to grasp the scope of his achievement, reporting the war the way he did, without considering the context. DAVID REMNICK: It was incredibly ballsy, what he did. And remember, he was working for the establishment organ. He was working for The New York Times, which wasn’t really used to being very defiant at that time anyway, and I think he behaved in press conferences with a degree of courage and flamboyance beyond his years. And it had a real impact, such an impact that John F. Kennedy called the Sulzbergers - called the publisher of the paper and said, look, get this guy out of there. And the Sulzbergers, to their credit, said no. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And let’s consider the context. A lot of the early Vietnam reporters said that they were reporting in the shadow of World War II. What was the typical tone in say, 1963, for reporting from that war zone? DAVID REMNICK: Well, I think the idea that a reporter would have the lead be, General So-and-So says X, but evidence in the field suggests Y, was a pretty radical departure. That’s not something that Ernie Pyle, for all his great virtues, was in the business of doing during the Second World War.
What you got was a lot of colorful reporting, but you also got a sense of unanimity, a sense of national mission and international mission, and Vietnam was an entirely different story.
Vietnam was, and it sounds very familiar these days, something entered into under a series of pretexts, and government lying was involved, and a quagmire ensued, and Halberstam was among the first to report on that, and that’s a very big achievement.
And then, second of all, he comes back from Vietnam, he writes a book about the quagmire and then writes a really important book about how the seemingly “Best and the Brightest’, to use his phrase, of seemingly great intelligence and foreign policy wisdom, inched up to the precipice and fell in. He wrote what really amounts to a classic of Washington and foreign reportage, and that’s The Best and the Brightest. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sometimes you can be a great reporter, a legendary one, without necessarily being an amazing writer. Jack Shafer, writing in Slate, recalls a parody that Nick Lemmon did many years ago that sent up his writing.
It went like this [READING RAPIDLY]: “They always said what Halberstam needed was a good editor his sentences ran on and on he piled phrase upon phrase clause upon clause he used commas the way other men used periods. [LAUGHTER] He was writing about important themes the crucial themes the big brilliant intelligent men in their glistening scintillating power and he didn’t have time to polish didn’t need to take out the extra words the repetitions. Other men could do that but not Halberstam.” DAVID REMNICK: This kind of March of Time bigness to his style was very much his voice, his presence. This was not a shrinking violet. This was not a neurasthenic voice. Was it too much at times? Maybe so, but I think, again, Brooke, the achievement – I thought his book on Bosnia was terrific - the achievement on Vietnam and some of the smaller books were written sometimes with more discipline and to greater effect, like The Amateurs, which was about rowing, I thought was actually a beautifully written book and quite a short one. So it wasn’t always like that. BROOKE GLADSTONE: For the rest of his career, Halberstam alternated between political and military histories and books about sports. DAVID REMNICK: Yeah. BROOKE GLADSTONE: You’ve also written alternately about weighty subjects and sports, and I wonder what he found in sports that enabled him to turn to it again and again.
DAVID REMNICK: Look, I think David, first and foremost, wrote about sports because he wanted a break. I think he wanted some entertainment after being immersed for five years at a time in something like the Korean War or Bosnia, but he also went at it with the same reporting energy that he went at it with anything else.
He didn’t condescend to sports. In other words, he didn’t dismiss it, he didn’t look down his snout at it, and at the same time, I don’t think he made it into more than it necessarily is.
When I wrote a book about Muhammad Ali in the early ‘60s, his work on that kind of thing was very much in my mind. So the book ended up being as much about a certain period of time, about blackness and maleness, about the early ‘60s, about race, but at the center of it was a sporting event and a sporting figure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And he also wrote about social justice and race in his books about sports. DAVID REMNICK: Very much so. I think Vietnam was formative for him, but what preceded it was this job he had as a young reporter at The Tennessean. Having been at Harvard and New York, it was very alien territory to him, and his reporting on civil rights formed in him, even in a traditional ‘50s guy, the capacity for moral outrage. BROOKE GLADSTONE: David, thank you very much. DAVID REMNICK: It was my pleasure. I wish it were a happier occasion. BROOKE GLADSTONE: David Remnick is the editor of The New Yorker. DAVID HALBERSTAM: I volunteered for the Vietnam assignment, and I would suggest, by the way, that the civil rights coverage would be an excellent preparation to cover a war like Vietnam, in the sense that you were covering our colonial era, here at home.