25 April 2007

David Halberstam, 1934-2007

Journalist and prolific author David Halberstam died in a car accident on Monday. Halberstam may have been the greatest journalist of the last half-century. And that is not simply my opinion. Anthony Lewis made that determination--and Lewis has been a damned good journalist himself.

Halberstam had such an impact on many facets of American politics and intellectual life. Not only was he a superb journalist--but he was a gifted writer. You can pick up any of his books at random and quickly appreciate his knowledge, wit, and excellent storytelling skills.

You can read the obituaries that have been published during the past few days--but I would like to briefly mention three things about David Halberstam that I will always think about.

1. He set the standard in honest war reporting during Vietnam. Halberstam wasn't "embedded" with some military unit, he reported on what was actually happening in that country. And as you might expect, the politicians despised him--President Kennedy wanted the New York Times to remove him from Saigon. Along with other great, young reporters like Neil Sheehan and Malcolm Browne, Halberstam didn't accept the lies and coverups coming from official sources in Washington. As Dexter Filkins writes in the New York Times (26 April 2007), Halberstam was one of the first skeptics--one of the first reporters who questioned the government version of international events. We need more Halberstam's today. Since the Bush administration has clearly lied its way through the Iraq War, those skeptics are needed now more than ever.

2. David Halberstam wrote many excellent books--but his Vietnam masterpiece, The Best and the Brightest, is something everyone should read. While it is about America's tragic descent into the Vietnam quagmire, it's really about much more than that--our flawed system, American hubris, the lack of understand about the world and its people. You can learn about Vietnam, but you also learn about Iraq and other blunders. The book is as relevant today as it was when it was published in 1972. Please read it, you will not regret it.

3. Finally, a societal comment (and I might sound like an old coot here). We are inundated in this culture with news and information about politicians, sports and rock/rap star, media personalities (Imus, Stern, Springer, etc.). Have you ever stopped and reflected on how truly interesting those people are? The answer is easy--they are not very interesting at all! Generally, they are not very bright, or imaginative, or remarkable in any way. Yet we continue to worship Anna Nicole Smith, Paris Hilton, and the latest winner in the American Idol competition. It's low-culture at its worst.

David Halberstam was an tremendously interesting and fascinating individual.....as was Kurt Vonnegut who passed away last week.....as was historian Arthur Schlesinger who died in February....not to mention journalist Molly Ivins who died earlier this year. Yet the media continues to worship celebrities--and most Americans simply accept it.

Several weeks ago, someone did an clever experiment by
placing a classical violinist near a subway entrance in Washington D.C. to see if anyone noticed, or even cared. Over 1000 people walked past Joshua Bell, and only seven paid any attention--or gave him any loose change. Granted, people were in a hurry and had to get to work; but I bet if Paris Hilton was standing there, people would have stopped. David Halberstam will be sorely missed.

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