Two days ago on a highway in California an Icon died in a car crash. His name was David Halberstam. I’ve been pondering since that time how to write this piece, how to properly opine on the life and work of one of America’s most profound and skilled journalists. For two days I’ve paroused my collection of his books, reading passages, remembering the events he detailed. I’ve read numerous articles and obit pieces penned by everyone from fans to the New York Times, one of his many former employers. I still am not sure exactly what to say, but I feel the need to bring these words to life before he is in the ground. At the risk of sounding dramatic, this is a tough story to write.
David Halberstam was born in 1934 in New York City, the son of a surgeon and a school teacher. He began his love affair with the written word at a young age, writing his way through public school and onto the campus of Harvard University where he served on the Harvard Crimson. By his own admission he was an average student at best, once saying that he “was better suited for the Crimson than for Harvard”.
In 1955 he graduated from Harvard and went to work for a small daily in West Point, Mississippi – the Daily Times Leader. This would prove a rather prophetic title for Halberstam, who over the next decade and change became the daily leader in American journalism. He received the George Polk Award at 29, for his work with the New York Times in Vietnam. At 30 he received the Pulitzer Prize as well, for the same subject matter.
In his illustrious career he published 20 books, and was in process on several others at the time of his death. He was widely regarded as one of, if not the premier American journalist of the past 50 years. His work has been published in hundreds of papers in dozens of languages spanning the globe.
You could have learned all of this on wikipedia. My intention here is not to regurgatate the static resume of the man, but it is essential to recall, even if only in this manner, the vast ability and insight that lived within him. David Halberstam was a writer, plain and simple. He translated what he saw in the world into words that few men could have dared to write, and even fewer could have done so well.
He was a profound influence on my writing, and still is. I picked up a weathered copy of The Best and the Brightest in my teenage years during a Kennedy kick. Even at that tender age when I could not possibly comprehend the world around me on such a grand scale, it was clear to me that this man, this Halberstam, was a giant of the literary world. I’ve re-read the book twice since then, and each time I have felt more connected than before.
Beyond politics, beyond world affairs, beyond wars and civil rights, Halberstam also turned to sport for subject matter. A rare find in the journalistic world is the writer who can capture a presidential press conference and the closing days of a pennant race in the time when baseball was king. Summer of ’49 was the second Halberstam book I read, and my favorite to this day. Earl Warren, former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court once said “When I pick up the newspaper, I turn immediately to the sports section. The front pages are filled with mans failures, while the sports section tells of mans victories”. David Halberstam helped elevate the trade of sports journalism to an artform.
Over the course of his career Halberstam wrote six books on sports, ranging from the aforementioned 1949 pennant race between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees to books on Michael Jordan and Bill Belichick. At the time of his death he was scheduled to interview Y.A. Tittle, quarterback of the Baltimore Colts for a book about the 1958 NFL Championship game.
While driving home yesterday I listened to Teri Gross on NPR, who was replaying old interviews with Halberstam, a regular on her Fresh Air program over the years. I have heard that booming baritone voice a hundred times before, it was never so eerie, so final as it was yesterday. If you never heard Halberstam speak, you missed the essence of the man. His words, on paper, always had a softer air than those that came from his mouth. He was not afraid to speak his mind, always supported by fact, always entrenched in truth. That deep, powerful voice seems to serve as my narrarator today. Perhaps it is a longing to someday reach that place where excellence in my words is an afterthough of years of dedication. Perhaps it is some twisted sub-concious memorial. Perhaps I just miss my friend, who I never had the good fortune to meet.
This morning I came across a very personal piece from David, one first published in parade in May of 1982. It is a letter written to his daughter Julia during his time in Vietnam, when she was not yet two years old. It was re-listed by www.commondreams.org on the day he died, submitted by a reader who found an old yellowed copy in his mother’s collection. I have managed to write this much, but still cannot find the right way to end this piece, to end his life. So I think I’ll let David do it himself.