Dickey: Halberstam's Lessons About Quagmires

It was the spring of 1955, a year after Brown vs. Board of Education, and David Halberstam wanted to be where the action was.  Fresh from Harvard College, he set out for the Deep South, for a reporter’s job on the paper in tiny West Point, Miss.  The South did not get any deeper, nor newspapers any tinier, than in West Point.  But the story did not get any bigger, either.  Halberstam, who had grown up in New York, understood that a war was under way in the streets of the South and in the hearts of Americans on the perennial question of race.  He believed, he said later, that Mississippi “was the best place to apprentice as a journalist,” and the stories of that time, including the Emmett Till trial in Sumner, brought him face to face with the complexities of the American character-the violence and the passion, the rage and the grace, the cruelty and the kindness.  Flush from victory in World War II, embarked on the cold war against Soviet totalitarianism, the nation was struggling to define itself, to understand its power, and the possibilities and limits of that power.

In a way, the education of David Halberstam began in a hot courtroom in Sumner, Miss., where two white men were tried for the brutal murder of young Till, who had committed the sin of whistling at a white woman.  Till’s open casket, and the photographs of his beaten, bloated body, captured the moral crisis of the segregated South.  Halberstam was young himself, but he already demonstrated a gift for sensing the nuances of influence.  Watching the national reporters roll into Sumner to cover the trial, Halberstam later wrote, he knew something was afoot.  “The editors of the nation’s most important newspapers were men in their fifties, who by and large held traditional views of race but who, because of the Brown decision, were going to pay more attention to the race issue,” Halberstam wrote.  “Their reporters were different.  They were younger men in their thirties, often Southern by birth, more often than not men who had fought in World War II and who thought segregation odious.  Moreover, they thought World War II was, among other things, about changing America and the South, where things like this could happen.  They had long been ready to cover the South.  Now they had their chance.  The educational process had begun: the murder of Emmett Till and the trial of the two men accused of murdering him became the first great media event of the civil-rights movement.  The nation was ready; indeed, it wanted to read what happened.”

As it was in the beginning, so it was down the decades: Halberstam, who died on Monday in a car crash in northern California at age 73, was always present at the creation, reporting, watching, thinking, and writing about the unfolding drama of what Henry Luce called the American Century.  The Harvard graduate who went from Cambridge to Mississippi to cover the great domestic story of the time became one of the earliest and most important journalists to chronicle the great foreign story of the age: Vietnam, where, in the pages of The New York Times, Halberstam insisted on reporting what he saw happening, not what the government said was happening.  The difference was essential, even epochal, and Halberstam achieved something few journalists ever do.  He changed history, for he helped change how America saw not only the war in Vietnam but the ways of Washington.  It is hardly an exaggeration to suggest that Halberstam’s reporting, and his epic book, The Best and the Brightest, were crucial elements in Americans’ growing, and justified, distrust of their government.

But Halberstam was no cynic; far from it.  He loved the country and had high hopes for it-hopes that were unshaken and unshakeable from Vietnam to September 11.  As a young reporter he grew restless at The Times, and struck out to write for Willie Morris’s Harper’s magazine and to “do books,” as he would say.  His interests were rich and varied, ranging from the media establishment (“The Powers That Be”) to the American auto industry (“The Reckoning”) to baseball (“The Summer of ‘49”).  He relished immersing himself in new worlds, to emerge from two or three years of deep reading and tireless reporting to produce big, often bold tales.  To him, each book was a university education, and he tended to alternate between big books and smaller ones—though the latter were often smaller only in length, not in importance: his book on his local New York firehouse after 9/11 is a wonderful work. 

Halberstam was a generous man, always kind to those coming along.  He read manuscripts, encouraged writers to turn articles that he liked into books, cared deeply about education, about the disadvantaged, and about the life of his native city.  Over drinks and at dinner, he would dispense avuncular counsel in a deep and resonant voice that, I think, put John Houseman and Charlton Heston to shame.  Halberstam so adored his life with his wife, Jean, and his daughter, Julia, that a standard sermon to younger journalists in New York revolved around the wonders—even the necessity—of raising one’s family in the city.  “It’s so important,” he would say, and he sounded so sure, so certain, so Godlike that you found yourself wondering how you could even have considered anything else, even if you never had.

A few years ago, less than a month after the attacks of September 11, he and I were together in Sewanee, Tenn., at The University of the South, where Halberstam was receiving an honorary degree.  From his days in Mississippi (and later, in Nashville) he had always loved the South, and he savored audiences, especially audiences of young people.  In that grim season of terror, he took a moment from his more formal remarks on the nature of the new war and said, “I would like to add a word for the students here.  You are going to be fine.”  His hope endured; his confidence in the country he loved and served so long with the power of his pen and the acuity of his vision was undiminished.  His generation, he said, had overcome Pearl Harbor; the one coming up would survive and thrive in the face of a different global threat.

His was a hope born of experience.  Back in the 50s, Halberstam had begun watching America, painfully but surely, cast off the burdens of segregation.  Since then, from the American South to Southeast Asia, he bore witness to the conviction that for all our sins and shortcomings, we would, painfully but surely, move toward Martin Luther King, Jr.’s mountaintop.  It is a mark of Halberstam’s greatness that his work has long helped us see how we might get there, and always will.